SALT LAKE CITY — Allowing U.S. athletes to carry a highly symbolic American flag during tonight's opening ceremony may go far to honor the heroes and victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but it also stirs ghosts that linger from the Olympics' worst tragedy: the 1972 Munich massacres.
Previous attempts to memorialize the 11 Israeli athletes and officials murdered at the '72 Summer Games have fallen short in the eyes of prominent Jews and families of the slain. They want the International Olympic Committee to make a formal gesture--such as a moment of silence--dedicated to the victims. But the IOC has resisted, partly because of concern about protests from Arab delegates.
The plan to honor those who died in last year's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center is highly appropriate, activists say, because victims represented nations around the globe. But as the IOC did an about-face this week to allow an official gesture, they could not help but wonder: What about us?
"In every subsequent Olympics, we asked for just a moment of silence," said Dr. Benjamin Berger of Shaker Heights, Ohio, whose son David was among the athletes killed. "Not a great display, just a moment of silence, to acknowledge the thing that occurred. That's all."
IOC Director General Francois Carrard declined to comment. It has been the contention of IOC leaders that they have repeatedly honored those killed. They point to a memorial service the day after the Sept. 5, 1972, attack and, more recently, comments during the closing ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games as well as remarks by IOC President Jacques Rogge's this week during an all-delegates session in Salt Lake City.
"I have no reservations about doing more in the future," Rogge later said. "I just want to say that we have honored the memory of these athletes."
Both publicly and privately, according to confidential minutes of the IOC's policymaking Executive Board, the committee has struggled to recognize this stark chapter in Olympic history.
The IOC's oft-stated goal is to keep the Games focused on athletic endeavors and on fostering goodwill between athletes. That desire played a role earlier this week when a subcommittee, citing protocol, rejected a proposal to have U.S. athletes carry a tattered flag recovered from the World Trade Center site in tonight's parade of nations.
But the IOC was unprepared for the controversy unleashed with its decision and quickly compromised. Tonight, the flag will be carried into Rice-Eccles Stadium before the parade and held during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Efraim Zinger, director general of Israel's National Olympic Committee, said that, despite the nearly 30 years separating the Munich murders and the Sept. 11 attacks, there is much in common.
"It's a chain in this series of never-ending terrorist events that started in 1972," Zinger said. "Our feeling is the Olympic movement should acknowledge its family members."
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said the IOC has an obligation to honor the Munich dead because it occurred at the Games.
"When something occurs on your turf, when something violates the Olympic spirit, something that was one of the most atrocious examples of terrorism until 9/11, then it becomes the responsibility of the IOC to do something," he said. "The IOC has an unpaid bill that they should pay . . . and that is memorializing something that is part of the history of the Olympics."
But Toni Khoury of Lebanon, an IOC executive board member, said a moment of silence to honor the slain Israelis at the ceremony would be an unwelcome political intrusion.
"Believe me, like all human beings I was--I am--sick about the deaths of all the [Israeli] athletes. In my opinion, with all due respect . . . for the opening ceremony, and the Olympic Games, it is best not to interfere politically."
Observers say the IOC is struggling to recognize the complexities of the tragedy. Killed were Moshe Weinberg, Yoseph Romano, David Berger, Eliezer Halfin, Yaacov Shpringer, Zeev Freedman, Yoseph Gutfreund, Kehat Shor, Mark Slavin, Andre Spitzer and Amizur Shapira, in addition to five Palestinians and one German policeman.
Should the Israelis be memorialized to the exclusion of the others? There are also internal Olympic politics to navigate. While Israel has one IOC delegate, there are several from Arab states.
The day of the murders was marked by confusion and misinformation. Just before dawn on Sept. 5, 1972, eight Palestinians broke into the Israeli living quarters in the Olympic Village. Shots were fired and two Israelis were killed. The rest were taken hostage.
At first, IOC President Avery Brundage, an American, said the Games must go on. Then there was an about-face and the rest of the day's events were canceled.