After decades of IOC silence, slain Israeli Olympians headed for recognition

Click photo to download. Caption: In September 1972, relatives of the Israeli Olympic team members who were murdered at the Munich Olympics are pictured before funeral processions for the victims at local cemeteries in Israel. Credit: Eldan David/GPO.

 

By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org

“We have given the best years of our lives to remember—to remember the tragedy of what happened. … Now we are starting to see some light from all of our efforts.”

Such is the sentiment of Ilana Romano, widow of Israeli weightlifter Yossef Romano, who was murdered by Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists along with 10 other members of the Israeli Olympic team during the summer of 1972 Olympics in Munich, West Germany. That fateful event became known as the “Munich Massacre.”

Since then, Romano and a handful of fellow widowers have fought for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to formally recognize the massacre with a moment of silence or official memorial. While the Games went on in 1972, the tragedy was shooed under the carpet. As recently as 2012, Romano and Ankie Spitzer, the widow of another Munich Massacre victim, pressed top Olympic officials over their refusal to honor the dead with a minute of silence at the opening ceremony of that year’s London Olympics—the massacre’s 40th anniversary. No such recognition was granted.

But the playing field is starting to shift.

In time for the Rio Olympics in the summer of 2016, a first-ever IOC-supported official memorial telling the story of the Munich Massacre will be erected in Munich, on the grounds of the Olympic stadium. The memorial, whose groundbreaking ceremony will take place this summer, is being constructed at the initiative of the Bavarian government to bring a sense of closure to this 43-year drama. 

Click photo to download. Caption: An unofficial tribute to the Israeli Olympians murdered at the 1972 Olympics in July 2012 in London's Trafalgar Square, coinciding with the start of that year's Summer Olympics in London. That year, the International Olympic Committee declined to grant requests for an official moment of silence for the Munich victims during the Olympics that marked the 40th anniversary of their deaths. Credit: Chesdovi via Wikimedia Commons.

Likewise, it was recently announced that the new president of the IOC, Thomas Bach, will erect an official site at the Rio Olympics for people to go and reflect on the loss of anyone who was hurt or killed in the Olympic Games—including the 11 Israeli victims.

In anticipation of the memorial, the Foundation for Global Sports Development (GSD) will release a new documentary examining what is widely considered the first act of modern terrorism. The film, “Munich 1972 & Beyond,” will for the first time unravel why and how the attack happened, its aftermath, and its importance in 2015 and beyond. Produced by Dr. Steven Ungerleider, author of “Faust’s Gold,” and GSP President David Ulich, the film will offer new research and information—some of which Romano says she has never seen herself.

“The IOC jumping in is the biggest symbolic step at this point,” Ulich tells JNS.org, noting the 40-plus year controversy about the IOC’s level of support—or lack thereof—in remembering the victims. The IOC is among the lead sponsors of the memorial and is supportive of the film.

“This was a very edgy, unpleasant, traumatic event,” says Ungerleider. “First there was denial, then it was buried, suppressed for whatever reason—political reasons, anti-Semitic reasons, racist reasons—and not until a year ago has someone stepped up and said, ‘Now we are ready to move forward, and we need to honor the past so we can move forward and remember those [killed] and never forget.’”

Ulich says the memorial is an important piece of the healing process between the Germans, the Israelis, and the IOC, as well as between the victims’ families and the world, and that the GSD documentary will “document that healing process.”

Ungerleider and Ulich are currently in the interviewing and filming process for their production. The essence of the film is to tell a story of redemption and reconciliation, and to talk about the upcoming memorial as a space for memory and mourning. While capturing the voices of the victims, the German police, members of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, and other officials, the producers hope to capture the spirit that “we are now moving forward,” Ungerleider says. 

“There is not room for terrorism anywhere, especially on the Olympic grounds,” he says.

Since that 1972 massacre, security has been at the forefront of every Olympics. According to Ungerleider, an entire Olympic budget is around $15-$20 billion, of which close to $2 billion is spent on security. The IOC works closely with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Mossad, the U.K.’s Secret Intelligence Service, and other security bodies around the world. 

Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, who served as an intelligence and strategic affairs correspondent for the Hebrew daily newspaper Haaretz and is the co-author of “Spies against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars,” says today the world does not need a reminder that terrorism exists. But through supporting the Munich memorial, he says, the IOC is demonstrating that it understands the need to combat terror.

“Americans do not need to be reminded after 9/11,” Melman says. “In Russia, Southeast Asia, China—terrorism is all over the place. More or less, most governments understand they have to fight terrorism.”

“The fact of the Games themselves, that after Munich the IOC decided to carry on—and it was a difficult decision—that should show we cannot be beaten by terrorism,” Jochen Färber, IOC President Bach’s chief of staff, tells JNS.org. “This memorial will help underlay that message and explain why we must never give into terrorism.”

Ilana Romano adds, “Now I can rest a little because I know that I am leaving the record straight for the next generation, from a historical perspective, so hopefully history will not repeat itself.” 

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Posted on May 22, 2015 and filed under Features, Israel, World, Sports.