In 2002, at the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Mitt Romney watched proudly as Americans hoisted a tattered U.S. flag salvaged from the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center.
Nobody accused Romney — or the Olympic committee he directed — of “politicizing” the Games. But they were political, nevertheless.
I thought of Salt Lake City as I read about the campaign to hold a moment of silence at this summer’s Olympics in London, in commemoration of the 11 Israeli athletes who were murdered by terrorists at the Munich Olympics 40 years ago. A petition demanding such recogition — and authored by a widow of one of the slain athletes — has already garnered over 100,000 signatures.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials and Jewish organizations around the world have stepped up pressure on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for a moment of silence. But the IOC says that would be too “political.” As one member explained, a moment of silence for Israeli victims “may harm the unity of the Olympics” and “could cause some countries to boycott the Games.”
But many countries — including the United States — have boycotted Olympics in the past, which have never been as united as we like to pretend. They’re athletic events, of course, but they’re also deeply political ones.
Nobody understood that better than the eight terrorists who broke into a dormitory at the Munich Olympics on September 5, 1972, killing two Israelis and taking nine others hostage. They demanded that Israel release 200 prisoners, but their larger goal was to ignite passion for the Palestinian cause.
And they got their wish, at least in the Arab world. After five of the terrorists died in a firefight at a German airfield, where the Israeli hostages were also killed, their bodies were sent to Libya for a huge public funeral. Thousands of mourners jostled to touch the caskets of the dead, whose relatives were flown in — at Libya’s expense — for the ceremony.
The following month, when the hijacking of a Lufthansa airliner led to the release of the three remaining Munich terrorists, they too received a heroes’ welcome in Libya. Before he died in 2010, one of the terrorists told an interviewer that he would “do it all over again,” if he had the chance, because the Munich attacks had alerted the world to the Palestinian cause.
“Political”? You bet.
So were the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which Adolf Hitler used to burnish Nazism’s international image. Ditto for the 1968 Games in Mexico City, where two African-American medal winners raised their fists in a Black Power salute.
And the Munich Olympics were political, too, even before the Israeli hostage drama began. Several African nations threatened to boycott the Games to protest the participation of white-ruled Rhodesia. Over the objections of American IOC chair Avery Brundage, who had notoriously praised Hitler’s achievements back in the 1930s, Rhodesia was excluded at the last minute.
Brundage would return to the African issue at the lone Olympic ceremony for the murdered Israeli athletes, on the day after they died. Declaring that “the Games must go on,” Brundage said that they had been “subject to two savage attacks”: the Palestinian terrorist strike and the “naked political blackmail” over Rhodesia.
Racial politics arose again several days later, when two black American track champions refused to sing the U.S. national anthem at their medal ceremony; conjuring Mexico City, one of them made a quick Black Power salute. Brundage banned them from future competition, calling the two athletes a “disgrace … to the Olympic movement.”
But the biggest disgrace is the Olympics’ ongoing refusal to memorialize the Munich attacks. The IOC did agree to invite children of the murdered Isreali athletes to the 1996 Games in Atlanta. But there was no official recognition of the Munich tragedy, even after a bomber killed two people and injured 111 others in Atlanta.
Four years later, press reports suggested that the IOC was finally ready to hold a moment of silence for the Munich victims. But Arab countries threatened a boycott of the Sydney Games and the IOC backed down, just like it’s doing now.
So the rest of us need to stand up, and make sure that London is different. No matter what you think of the current impasse in the Middle East, you should be able to memorialize innocent athletes who perished at the Olympics. And if you can’t, maybe you should just stay home.
That would be political, too. So are the Olympics, from start to finish. The only question is whose politics will win the day, and why.
Jonathan Zimmerman is an historian with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. He teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).
This article originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer.