In early September, I stood outside JCC Rockland and with a group of about 50 people spanning generations, remembered the 11 Israeli athletes who were murdered in the 1972 Munich Olympics.
You could say it was an off year memorial, the 41st since Palestinian terrorists took the athletes hostage. It was small and simple, and quite poignant. David Kirschtel, the JCC’s CEO, spoke about how Munich widow Ankie Spitzer now has a grandchild, in a way, life’s own best revenge: “Her new grandson, Andy, named for a grandfather he will never meet, is the greatest memorial tribute of all. He stands for all that the terrorists once strove to destroy — life and hope and the future.”
Lois Silverman, a community leader who won a gold medal at Israel’s Maccabiah games in early August, spoke of her experience and introduced the teens who represented each athlete whose life was taken at the Munich Games, spoke their names, the sport they played and said, “May his memory be for a blessing.”
The ceremony had none of the urgency of the community’s campaign last year to wring a proper memorial — a minute of silence held during the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics — out of the International Olympic Committee for the 40th anniversary of the massacre. And we all know the answer to that international campaign. IOC President Jacque Rogge offered a resounding, “No.” Not even when Ankie and her accomplice, Munich widow Ilana Romano — and the group of Rockland community leaders bearing a ream of papers containing more than 111,000 signatures from around the world — asked him face-to-face in London, did he relent.
Now, a little more than a year later, the IOC has named a new president. Thomas Bach, a German lawyer who has built deep political ties in the world of international sport, will become the ninth man to lead the 119-year-old organization. A fencer, like Ankie’s murdered husband, Andrei, Bach won gold in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Rogge in his decision to deny a minute of silence memorial at the London games and has courted the IOC presidency, highest position in international sport, for many years.
As soon as Bach was anointed, his ties to various Arab business groups came to light, some with unsavory missions. Chief among them was Ghorfa, the Arab-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry set up in the 1970s by Arab countries to boycott trade with Israel. Bach’s candidacy had, prior to that, generated a great deal of interest among Arab countries, because of his ties to Kuwaiti sheikh Ahmad al-Sabah, president of the Association of National Olympic Committees, which distributes nearly $400 million in IOC money to national associations, according to reporting in the Guardian.
Bach said he would resign his chairmanship of Ghorfa and several other organizations upon taking the IOC’s helm. He arrives at the presidency at a time when the IOC has most recently come under fire for its tepid response to Russia’s sweeping “gay propaganda” laws. Many have feared that the laws will apply to gay athletes who compete in Sochi, Russia, where the 2014 winter Olympics will be held. The law is broad; even wearing rainbow colors as LGBT players have done in recent Olympics could be interpreted as propaganda and land them under Russian arrest.
The IOC, in typical fashion, has taken a mumble-mouthed stand on the subject and only days ago announced that the law did not violate the Olympic charter. As if anyone expects different from the IOC when it cannot even manage — some 40 years later — to honor the memory of 11 Olympian’s murdered during the games? As Ankie has pointed out, the IOC doesn’t really seem all that interested in its own charter, which focuses on international fair play and sportsmanship, rather than political appeasement.
Ankie is well familiar with Bach. In the past, he has courted her and Romano’s support when Munich sought to become the host for the 2016 winter Olympics. In exchange, he said he would promise a memorial for their husbands, Andrei and Yossef, and their nine teammates. Munich did not win its bid to become the only city to ever host both summer and winter games. Yet on Sept. 30, Munich decided to once again pursue a bid for the 2022 winter games. It seems the citizens of Munich (or at least their international sports representatives) can’t get past the feeling that the Munich massacre somehow cheated them out of the full, ebullient Olympic experience. Never mind in what ways it cheated the victims and their families.
Bach could make good on that memorial he promised during the Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in 2016, or certainly in Munich in 2022. I’m not sure how you could host the games again in Munich and avoid acknowledging in a significant way what took place in September 1972. Whatever Bach does will likely be complicated by his Arab business ties and the IOC’s willingness to bury its head in the sand over the deaths of 11 Jewish Israelis.
Ankie would like to see her quest for a memorial come to fruition in Rio de Janeiro. “I do not have to wait for the winter games in Munich in 2022,” she writes in an email. “I will be ancient by then. I hope we will see it in Rio, so I can go home.” But should Munich win its bid, she says, there will be no choice but to acknowledge what happened — 2022 will be, after all, the 50th anniversary of the Munich Massacre.
Ankie took Rogge and the IOC to task at the memorial the London Jewish community and Israeli officials attended prior to the 2012 games. “Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only person left who still believes in the Olympic ideals,” she blasted. “Is the IOC only interested in power, money and politics?
“Shame on you, IOC.”
Bach had been sympathetic prior to the speech, she says. After, he turned his back, though she has since congratulated him on his successful bid for the IOC presidency, and would like to work with him going forward. Ankie wants that memorial to happen at the Rio Games during the opening ceremony. After having generated so much attention and coming so close in 2012, she would like to have some closure. Bach’s ties to rich Arab nations and organizations, she notes, will make that pledge to the Munich 11 families difficult, but she hopes that he “will not forget what he has promised me.” She is optimistic and writes that in 2016 “it is now, or never.”
The JCC will be there. Kirschtel still wears a rubber Munch 11 memorial wristband made for the JCC Maccabi Games when they were held last year in Rockland County. He says he’d like to take it off for the Rio Games.
“We brought worldwide attention to a cause people barely remembered, and came so close to succeeding,” says Kirschtel. “I think we can do it in 2016. We have to try.”
The JCC triumphed even if the IOC refused. Those 111,000-plus signatures convinced me that you really can change the world when you believe that what you are doing is right.
Which brings me back to that Sunday morning ceremony in front of JCC Rockland commemorating the 11 Israelis. We stood around the sculpture built in their memory, an abstract flame with polished steel flames reaching skyward, it elegantly and quietly recalls those men who died and the terrible events of Sept. 5, 1972.
They might be events the world wanted to forget. But we did not. And that small act of remembrance should serve as a powerful reminder of all that we can achieve.