Germany held a ceremony this week to honor the Israeli athletes killed during the 1972 Olympics in Munich 50 years ago. On September 5, 1972, members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage at the athletes’ village, and murdered by the Palestinian Black September faction of the Fatah PLO. Eleven Israeli athletes and a German policeman were murdered. Two were brutally slain in the village and the rest died at Fuerstenfeldbruck Airfield, when the botched rescue effort erupted into firefight.
The star of the 1972 Olympics was a Jewish American swimmer, Mark Spitz, who became the subject of an intense security effort right after the tragedy. It was as horrible a crime as one can imagine in executing the Israeli athletes, and traumatizing the world in a real-time, live media event. The issue of German responsibility and fair compensation of $28 million, was only recently resolved, in time for the 50th commemoration.
My perspective was of a Jewish high school athlete in the U.S., enthralled with Spitz’s heroics. The Memphis JCC held a torch relay for teenagers in conjunction with the start of the Olympics, as a fundraiser for Soviet Jewry. A week later we held an outdoor memorial service in front of a large menorah, with rabbis from all local congregations. It was traumatic to experience the breathtaking anxiety of the hostages’ lives from moment to moment. ABC broadcaster Jim McKay managed the information and emotions masterfully.
A striking global perspective on the Black September events came from Puerto Rican Olympic Basketball Coach Gene Bartow, when he returned to Memphis where he coached Memphis State. When asked to comment on the tragedy, he first paid respects to the slain Israeli athletes and their families; but poignantly added, “This is a horrible tragedy that has no justification. But it’s important to remember the Palestinians have some legitimate grievances, and its difficult situation in that part of the world.”
The Black September movement arose in response to the PLO and 1000’s of Palestinians getting evicted from Jordan in 1972, in retaliation for their opposition to the monarch. King Hussein supposedly did that to please his Israeli counterparts and win political favor. That’s why Israeli athletes became the target.
Following the drama of the 1968 Olympics, some form of protest or athletes’ demonstration was expected in Munich. The 1968 and 1972 Olympiads forever politicized the event, and wedded the dynamics of sports and politics.
After 1976 in Montreal, the following two Olympiads in 1980 (Moscow) and 1984 (L.A.) were plagued by boycotts. The U.S. boycotted the Soviet Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which was a politically suicidal decision by President Jimmy Carter. That prompted many people to not vote for Carter who otherwise would have. His punishing American athletes for Soviet crimes did not make sense. In turn, the Soviets boycotted the L.A. Games. Many great athletic careers had an early, unjust end in both blocs.
With the rise of the BLM movement and near unanimous embrace by NBA, WNBA, NFL and athletes from other sports of LGBTQ protections, women’s health rights protections and a progressive environmental agenda; many world class athletes are political spokespersons for progressive causes. The players of the WNBA Atlanta Dream forced the owner, former Senator Kelly Loeffler to sell her interest in the team, after her comments criticizing the BLM movement and supporting Donald Trump.
Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr’s visceral and angry reaction to the Uvalde school shootings got the attention of people who didn’t know him before. Kerr’s father, Dr. Malcolm Kerr died by gun violence when he was president of American University-Beirut in 1984. His mentor, San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich has been a forceful voice in calling out the horrific madness of Trump, and he’s a graduate of the Air Force Academy. They exude the example of thoughtful leadership set by Coach Bartow 50 years earlier.
At the time of the Munich massacre, Israel and Germany had only resumed full diplomatic relations seven years earlier. The families of the athletes had threatened to boycott the anniversary because of Germany’s long resistance to a fair compensation package. The agreement also calls for Germany to acknowledge failures they made at the time, including keeping the Israeli military and intelligence uninvolved. The other concession that won the athletes’ survivors’ involvement, is the approval for German and Israeli historians to thoroughly review the records and events of the attack.
Hopefully that breakthrough will boost Israeli-German relations in a way that strengthens a coalition to resist the new Soviet expansion in Europe and the Middle East, and strengthen liberal democracy in the U.S., by giving President Joe Biden a stronger alliance to work with.