Commemoration of Munich Murders Is an Israeli Victory at Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony

The moment of silence for the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Olympics wasn’t just a painful reminder of the past. Forty-nine years later, the International Olympics Committee has finally taken responsibility

Amnon Harari
Amnon Harari
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Ilana Romano and Anki Spitzer at the Olympics in Tokyo on Friday
Ilana Romano and Anki Spitzer at the Olympics in Tokyo on Friday Credit: Israeli Olympic Committee
Amnon Harari
Amnon Harari

TOKYO – Even before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics got underway, Israel achieved a symbolic victory on Friday’s opening ceremony which included, for the first time, an official, prominent and clear commemoration of the 11 athletes murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

For 49 years, Ilana Romano and Anki Spitzer, two widows of athletes murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics, doggedly waged a battle with one goal in mind: to defeat the Olympic indifference to the darkest chapter in the history of the games.

Israel goes to the Olympics with high hopes, American ringers and no Arabs. LISTEN

This indifference is not a product of time. The memory of the massacre did not fade as the years went by. The indifference was there all along, from the very first moment, palpable and deliberate, even on the day after the massacre. As if nothing had happened, the organizers of the 1972 Olympics did not wait even two days to resume the Games. After a hiatus of just one day, they resumed the competitions, and got to work to erase the stain from memory as quickly as possible. For 49 years this strategy worked for the Olympics Committee. On Friday, it became clear they’ve finally realized it would be better not to win this game.

But memory is not everything, and the mention of the massacre was not only a painful reminder, but the moment responsibility was finally taken, all these years later. The significant role played by the organizers of the 1972 Olympics in the massacre itself should not be downplayed. By creating a relaxed atmosphere in and around the Olympic Village without any semblance of security, the organizers created conditions that allowed people to enter and exit the village freely without any armed guards in or around the site to protect athletes. And from the moment the terrorists entered the gates without any trouble, massacred two athletes and took another nine hostage, the organizers' biggest goal was not securing the hostages’ release, but rather getting them and the terrorists out of the Olympic Village, so that the games could quickly resume. It was under the organizers’ watch that the nine Israeli athletes held hostage by the terrorists were whisked off to a remote airport in Munich.

Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko and Yakov Toumarkin lead the delegation of Israeli athletes at Friday's opening ceremony. Credit: Odd Andersen / AFP

Out of sight, out of mind: Just sweep the problem aside, forget about it, move on as quickly as possible so that the games can go on. The organizers wanted this not only then – it’s what they’ve wanted ever since. Until Friday night that is, when the International Olympic Committee came to its senses and realized that sports is only one part of the picture. Maybe it was the coronavirus, which has made for a very strange Olympic Games, that shook things up. The International Olympic Committee has realized that it bears responsibility for its athletes, a responsibility that does not end when it fails them.

Even the biggest cynics among the Israelis present on the stands in Tokyo remained silent long after the moment of silence. It was an exciting, mesmerizing moment in which a circle came to a close. After decades spent knocking on every possible door to be repeatedly turned away, Spitzer and Romano managed to get the Olympic Committee to take responsibility, to remember what it was trying to forget.

A disclaimer: For years, my grandfather, Mike Harari, led the hunt for the terrorists responsible for the massacre in Munich. Perhaps that too contributed to the great excitement, casting my cynicism aside. The purpose of that operation, like this moment of silence, was clear: to prevent it from happening again and ensure that the murdered Israeli athletes are the last.

The credit for this milestone moment goes to Israeli activists and politicians over the years who fought for decades. But it should first go to Ilana Romano and Anki Spitzer, who have brought themselves and Israel a huge victory, bigger than any victory on gym mat or surfboard. But there will be time to celebrate such victories and celebrate we will.

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