During the early hours of September 5, 1972, eight armed Palestinian terrorists sneaked into the Olympic Village in Munich, Germany, stormed the sleeping quarters of the Israeli delegation, shot a wrestler and coach to death, and took another nine athletes and officials hostage. Twenty-one hours later, during a standoff on the tarmac of a nearby German military airport, one of the kidnappers blew up four of the Israeli hostages with a grenade, and the remaining five were executed by close-range machine gun fire.
Against the backdrop of the first Olympics in Germany since World War II, the Munich Massacre, as it has come to be known, is one of the most ruthless and appalling acts of terror the world has witnessed. Today, 40 years later, the victims' families and the Israeli people still struggle to understand how such an atrocity could occur, how such a heinous act was carried out at an event dedicated to sportsmanship and cultural celebration. And all that we ask for is just one minute.
Every four years since the '72 Games, widows of those murdered athletes have petitioned the International Olympic Committee to hold one minute of silence at the opening ceremonies to honor their memory. And every four years the IOC has refused. According to a recent explanation from its president, Jacques Rogge, "the opening ceremony is an atmosphere that is not fit to remember such a tragic incident." This explanation is not only unsatisfactory, but it is also insulting. The Olympics are indeed a celebration, but there is a responsibility to recall past participants murdered during the Games, on Olympic soil. If the atmosphere of the opening ceremony is not fit for recalling tragedy, then the IOC must create an atmosphere that is, just as it appropriately did at the 2002 Games by opening them with a minute of silence to honor the victims of 9/11.
Unfortunately, we Israelis observe several minutes of silence every year. We stand in silence for the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, for our soldiers who fell defending the state, and for the victims of terror. We stand in silence for the five Israeli tourists recently murdered by a Hezbollah suicide bomber in Bulgaria. And we will stand in silence tomorrow for our athletes who were senselessly killed at Munich. We stand in silence because we remember and honor, and we stand in silence because this is the loudest expression of our humanity.
Indeed, a moment of silence sheds all political rhetoric and strife and reveals our collectivity. The silence reminds us that there is a void in our lives that cannot be filled. It reminds us to appreciate. At an international gathering such as the Olympics, silence is the most universal language of all, understood by everyone without forcing any interpretations or beliefs. An entire Olympic stadium filled with athletes from every country and religion observing one minute of silence sends a strong message that all peoples stand together in rejecting terrorism and hatred. We are asking for sixty seconds of silence because we want the opportunity to pause, reflect, mourn, and, above all, unite.
According to the Olympic Charter, the IOC's role is "to encourage and support the promotion of ethics in sport…to take action in order to strengthen the unity…to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement." Yet, the IOC cites its commitment to keeping the games apolitical as a paramount interest and contends that a minute of silence for the Israeli victims will compromise that priority. The IOC's refusal to hold the minute of silence for this reason frames the decision within a political context and demonstrates that it is tone deaf to the cause: a memorial to eleven Olympic athletes. Indeed, if agreeing to host a moment of silence is a political statement, refusing to host a moment of silence is also a political statement. And a much more powerful one at that.
On September 6, 1972, the IOC decided to take an unprecedented step and suspended the games for 34 hours. More than 80,000 spectators and nearly 3,000 athletes attended an official memorial service. Many of the athletes from all different countries called for the remaining competitions to be canceled altogether, but Israel insisted that the games must go on. We pause, we remember, and we look forward. This is the IOC's moment to speak out and preserve the integrity of the Games, but right now, inexcusably, it remains silent.
The author, Michael Oren, is Israel's ambassador to the United States. He wrote this article for On Faith.
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