Seriously, in between all the running, jumping, swimming and sprinting, the Olympic organisers can’t spare one measly minute to remember 11 men murdered for daring to compete for their country?
You mean to tell me that there’s no room for a brief interlude during Danny Boyle’s opening extravaganza – not even when the rain is coming down from his fluffy fake clouds? Or during one of the minor events, the ones the organisers are practically giving away tickets to?
It is 40 years this summer since Ankie Spitzer’s husband, Andre, then a promising fencer, was murdered along with 10 other Israeli athletes who had come to Munich with dreams of medals, not massacre. In Olympic history, the terrible events of September 1972 remain a dark day in a back catalogue of glorious achievement.
Earlier this year Spitzer launched an appeal for the IOC to support a minute’s silence at the games in memory of the 11 who died, as happened in Vancouver as a tribute to another athlete who died in tragic circumstances.
Some 87,000 have backed her petition, as have myriad politicians and public figures, among them the German government, the US Senate and shadow Olympics minister Tessa Jowell.
Yet the IOC says no. Jeremy Hunt, the culture, media and sport minister, has refused to give his two pennies’ worth. Meanwhile Lord Coe, chair of the London Organising Committee, displayed extraordinary tactlessness in his response to Spitzer, inviting her to a memorial event she herself is organising. He has now agreed to hold a “personal” memorial during the opening ceremony, but it’s a concession that has taken far too long to make.
The Olympics are fundamentally about bringing people together, not dividing them along political lines, which is why Syrian show jumper Ahmad Hamsho can compete, despite his proclaimed loyalty to a government that is steadily butchering its people.
It’s why the Olympics were held in China, a country not known for its all-round dedication to human rights. It’s why the Saudis get to field a team, despite their reluctance to give women their turn. It’s why Iran’s hopefuls – a number of whom have in the past outright refused to compete against Israelis – get the benefit of the doubt and can still go for gold.
Now it would be naive to presume an international competition, even one that is supposedly above the rivalries of state governments, could be held in a vacuum. Athletes will arrive later this month at Heathrow, bringing with (assuming Britain’s airports can cope) more than just the baggage of their sports equipment.
Still, the Olympic charter is clear on prejudice, namely, that “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement”.
But what is the IOC’s stubbornness if not discrimination? What if the athletes killed in 1972 had been American, or French, say? Would we still be having this debate?
It seems clear that the IOC is worried about rocking the boat, angering Arab nations by honouring men who were killed by Palestinian terrorists. It’s afraid to take Israel’s side; it does not see it as a gamble worth the cost.
There doesn’t have to be pomp, there doesn’t have to be ceremony. Just 60 seconds of quiet. Usain Bolt could run the 100 metres 10 times over, but the rest of us wouldn’t get much done. It’s such a tiny symbol, negligible in the many, many moments that will make up the Olympics.
Yet it could be an opportunity for the Olympics to live up to its lofty ideals, to promote tolerance and educate a new generation about one of the bleakest points in the competition’s history. And, ultimately, it could come and go, making a difference to those who care, but offering a tea break for those who don’t.
The Olympic charter claims that the games “are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries”. So let’s follow that lead, and remember 11 men, not as Israelis, but as athletes.
This comment piece was first published by the Guardian. Read it here