‘They’re all gone’
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‘They’re all gone’

Why it matters that we remember the Olympic massacre in Munich

A Black September terrorist looks out from a terrace; the doomed Israelis athletes are held hostage in the apartment behind him.
A Black September terrorist looks out from a terrace; the doomed Israelis athletes are held hostage in the apartment behind him.

Not too long from now, it will be a half century since a small band of Black September terrorists committed the Munich Massacre during the 1972 Olympic Games.

As time passes, to what extent does what happened in Munich still matter?

More than 7,000 athletes from 121 nations competed in 195 events during the two weeks of festival that were the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. The Games were the first hosted on German soil since Berlin in 1936, when flags bearing the Nazi swastika were raised alongside those emblazoned with the Olympic rings. Wanting to show the world a new and different Germany, organizers in Munich conceived that their Games would look to the future. Where, for example, the venues for the 1936 Games recalled the ancient Greek style, the venues for the 1972 Games made for more of a “Tomorrowland” than Disney ever conjured.

Among the features aimed at moving past reminders of Nazi storm troopers with guns, organizers in Munich dressed security guards in blue jumpsuits and gave them only walkie-talkies. The decision, along with rather loose training and planning for the security forces, was perceived as a reasonable tradeoff.

Anyway, after all, who would attack the Olympic Games?

Early on the morning in the middle of the Games, the Black September terrorists answered that question. The terrorists slipped their way into the Olympic Village and laid siege on apartments in 31 Connollystrasse. There, they killed two members of the Israeli delegation and took nine others hostage. The terrorists demanded the release of 230 sympathizers who were being held in Israeli and German jails. Israeli officials refused to negotiate with the terrorists; German officials attempted a rescue mission.

Hours later, ABC Sports broadcaster Jim McKay, who had anchored live coverage of the events, informed the hostages’ families and the world that “Our worst fears have been realized tonight.… They’re all gone.”

Far from being a matter of history, the “Munich Massacre” is an extraordinary case of interrelated elements that have meaning for the present and future. The 1972 Games refract economic, political, and social events that have a great deal to say about the status and function of the Olympic movement, about global terrorism, and about mass media in today’s world. They also have something important to suggest about our education system.

What happened in Munich and how it happened still is worth our time and attention today. But do enough people really know about what happened at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich? Do they know how it happened? Do they know why it happened?

In today’s world, where algorithms increasingly drive each of us into silos of information, there is more of a need for learning that shows the way to connections between the people, ideas, and decisions.

Those questions formed the basis of a recent discussion between eight panelists that was moderated by Bob Costas, the United States’ pre-eminent sportscaster. The discussion, hosted at Columbia University’s law school, was organized to generate support for the Academies at Gerrard Berman. It was a world-renowned venue hosting the work and performance of a small but committed team. After the discussion, Costas, who has memorialized the Munich 11 at every Olympics he has covered for NBC Sports, and the panelists fielded questions and commentary from audience members.

The last of them was a suggestion that everyone in the room stand for one minute of silence.

Thinking through and discussing a challenge, and following it up with right action, is always the responsible thing to do. And it goes to show that what happened in Munich matters today — and going forward — because it is a reminder of that call to action to “never forget.”

To this day, the International Olympic Committee has rejected requests that a minute of silence for the “Munich 11” be held during the opening ceremony at the Games. The refrain from IOC officials is that doing so would make the Games into a political tool, which would chip away at the purpose of acting “as a catalyst for collaboration between all parties of the Olympic family.”

While that tack is understandable, it falls flat.

First, the modern Games were founded by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1896 as a response to war after war in Europe. His inspiration was a throwback to the Games in ancient Greece, when warring nations would pause to compete against each other in athletic events. Second, what happened in Munich was the murder of Olympic athletes at an Olympic Games, done by outside actors. So not to grant a minute of silence at an upcoming Games is to take a direct shot at the spirit and values of Olympism.

Remembrance is warranted. So, too, is vigilance. In fact, they are necessary. To get that done the right way, including to guard against misdirection, there must be an underpinning of consistent effort and continuous education. Otherwise, like the IOC officials who have yet to grant the minute of silence, people will not know and understand what is expected of them.

Dr. Lee Igel of Haworth is a clinical associate professor at NYU’s Tisch Institute and the co-director of NYU’s sports and society program.

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