Time to listen to call for Munich silence

By Jonathan Freedland, July 5, 2012

It is hard to remember now, amid all the talk of expensive tickets, congested roads and corporate sponsors, but the Olympic Games was always meant to be about an ideal. Those behind the Olympic revival at the end of the 19th century did not merely want to create a new fixture on the international sporting calendar. They sought to resurrect a lost and ancient tradition, at the centre of which was the high ideal known as the Olympic truce.

The official Olympic website traces this back to Greece in the 9th century BCE, when three rival kings agreed to halt hostilities while the Games were under way: "During the Truce period, the athletes… could travel in total safety to participate in or attend the Olympic Games and return afterwards to their respective countries."

Today's International Olympic Committee still proclaims that goal, insisting that it is committed to "protecting" all athletes as well as "searching for peaceful and diplomatic solutions to the conflicts around the world".

Forty years ago, the Olympic truce was violated in direct and brutal fashion. At the Munich Games of 1972, 11 athletes discovered they could not, after all, travel in "total safety" and that they would not, after all, be protected.

For Jews again to be killed on German soil was almost too much to bear

The 11 were members of the team representing Israel. In their quarters in the Olympic village, they were seized by eight Palestinian gunmen disguised as athletes, taken as hostages, and finally killed in a botched rescue effort at a nearby airport.

The episode was a deep trauma for Israel and the wider Jewish people. The mere fact of an Israeli team competing in Germany had been emotionally charged enough: here were Jews - young, strong and talented - returning not just as individuals, but as a proud nation under its own flag, to Munich, the birthplace of Nazism, just 30 years after Germans had threatened Jews with complete annihilation. The significance was already intense and poignant. But for Jews to become victims once again, murdered on German soil, was almost too much to bear.

Yet the Munich massacre did not only inflict a wound on the Israeli and Jewish psyche. It was also an attack on that Olympic ideal of the Games as a sanctuary, as a haven of safety where national differences would be settled by athletic competition rather than violence.

Which is why it is so appalling that the IOC has once again refused to hold a minute's silence to mark the death of those athletes slain in Munich, just as it has refused every four years since the murders happened. You would think it would automatically regard an attack on competitors inside the Olympic village as an attack on the Olympic family itself, one that obviously had to be recognised beyond the immediate moment of silence the day after the killings. But no.

"The IOC says it's not in the protocol of the opening ceremony to have a commemoration. Well, my husband coming home in a coffin was not in the protocol either," Ankie Spitzer, widow of Israel's 1972 fencing coach Andrei Spitzer, told the Guardian last week. Besides, there is ample precedent: the opening ceremony for the 2010 Winter Olympics held a silence for an athlete who had died earlier that day in training.

Mrs Spitzer has come to the reluctant conclusion that discrimination is at work. She told the Guardian the victims "had the wrong religion; they came from the wrong country".

But this can't be left to the IOC alone. These are the London Games; a failure to mark the dead of Munich will be a failure by the London hosts. There is a petition urging the organisers to change their minds. Let's hope they listen.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

Last updated: 2:51pm, July 10 2012