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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

Monument Honors 11 Slain Israelis

Memorial: Ceremony held at Jewish school. IOC still staying away from formal observance of events at Munich in 1972.

September 27, 2000|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — To remember the dead is to honor their memory, and as a light rain began to fall Tuesday a white-bearded rabbi leaned into the wind and intoned the words of the Kaddish, the prayer that Jews have recited for centuries as a passage of mourning.

In solemn ceremonies, hundreds of people gathered in the courtyard of a Sydney school to remember and to dedicate a monument to the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches killed by Arab terrorists at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

For all of the solemnity, however, the ceremonies--which culminated with the unveiling of an 11-sided monument topped with a sculpture in the shape of an extinguished Olympic flame--also marked the latest act in a long-standing political movement.

Over the years the International Olympic Committee has formally kept a distance from the events in 1972 in an attempt to separate sports and politics. But activists want to include during the Games themselves a memorial to the slain Israelis.

Most often mentioned: a moment of silence during the opening ceremonies.

"They say [the Games] symbolize friendship. They say they symbolize love. But not only this," said Rogel Nachum, 33, the captain of the Israeli team at the Sydney Games.

Nachum, a triple jumper who competed here and at two other Olympic Games, went on: "Something terrible happened at the Olympics. And it is part of the Games now."

During the ceremonies Tuesday at a Jewish day school, with dozens of children in blue uniforms listening in rapt attention, the story was retold:

Eight terrorists broke into the Israeli quarters at the Olympic Village at dawn on Sept. 5, 1972.

In the first few moments of the attack, two Israelis were killed: Moshe Weinberg and Yoseph Romano. The terrorists took nine others hostage, and demanded the release of 200 other Arab terrorists from jails.

After negotiations that lasted an entire day--the images of a masked terrorist peeking out a window were televised around the world--the scene shifted to the military airport outside Munich.

There German authorities hoped to rescue the hostages.

But the rescue attempt was hopelessly botched, and the resultant battle chaotic.

Four of the nine Israelis died in a burning helicopter: David Berger, Eliezer Halfin, Yaacov Shpringer and Zeev Freedman.

The other five were mowed down by terrorist machine-gun fire inside another helicopter: Yoseph Gutfreund, Kehat Shor, Mark Slavin, Andre Spitzer and Amizur Shapira.

Five of the eight terrorists, and a German officer, were also killed.

Various articles, books and even a movie--"One Day in September," which won an Oscar this year for best documentary feature--have noted that German officials made a slew of mistakes in trying to rescue the Israeli hostages.

Walter Troger, who was then mayor of the Munich Olympic Village and is now an IOC member from Germany, said Tuesday afternoon at the unveiling of the monument: "It was just one mistake. We were unprepared."

Security was tight at Tuesday's ceremony, which drew local dignitaries and officials, the Israeli Olympic team, hundreds from Sydney's Jewish community--as well as Troger and the IOC member in Israel, Alex Gilady.

For observant Jews in the audience Tuesday, the ceremonies were particularly rich because they occurred on the 28th anniversary of the slayings as marked on the ancient Hebrew calendar--on the 26th day of the month of Elul--and because Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashana, begins later this week. Rosh Hashana traditionally marks the time when Jews recall the past but simultaneously hope for a better future.

"It's an honor," said Ben Teeger, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at the school, which is called Moriah College. "They could have put the monument anywhere in the world. They chose our school."

A second monument in Sydney was dedicated last October. It is attached to one of the light towers in Olympic Park, a few yards outside Olympic Stadium. Like the sculpture dedicated Tuesday, it was privately funded.

Among other monuments are several in Munich and elsewhere in Germany and Israel. A plaque in Los Angeles was unveiled during the 1984 Games when the IOC declined then to observe a moment of silence during the opening ceremony.

The sensitivities involved in formalizing a symbolic gesture to the slain Israelis during the Games are, not unexpectedly, keen.

For years--as far back as the 1976 Montreal Games--relatives of the slain Israelis and others have been lobbying the IOC.

During the closing ceremony at the 1996 Atlanta Games, Juan Antonio Samaranch--president of the IOC since 1980--asked the crowd to stand for a moment of silence honoring the slain Israelis and those wounded or killed by the bomb that had gone off just days before at Atlanta's Centennial Park.

He said: "No act of terrorism has destroyed the Olympic movement, and none ever will. More than ever, we are committed to building a better, more peaceful world in which all forms of terrorism are eradicated."

The issue arose again in May, at a meeting in Rio de Janeiro of the 199-nation Assn. of National Olympic Committees.

Speaking of the Israelis, Rabie Al Turk, vice president of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, said: "If they are going to have a plaque in a prominent place, then I want a plaque. If they ask for a minute of silence, I ask one for me."

He also said that if the Israelis want to recall their victims, Palestinians will show photos of young Arabs killed by Israelis. "I have lots of victims," Al Turk said.

At the time, IOC Director General Francois Carrard said there would be no moment of silence opening the Sydney Games--indeed, there was not--and that the plaque outside the Olympic Stadium was "an entirely private affair."

He also said: "We're not involved in this."

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