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updated: 7/27/2012 6:32 AM

40 years of pain worth a minute of Olympic silence

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  • Israeli Ilana Romano, widow of an Israeli Olympian killed by Palestinian gunmen at the 1972 Munich Olympics, talks to the media during a news conference ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, July 25, 2012, in London. Relatives of the victims are calling on spectators to stage a silent protest during the opening of the London games, but the International Olympic Committee says the opening ceremony is not an appropriate arena to remember the dead, despite pressure from politicians in the United States, Israel and Germany.

      Israeli Ilana Romano, widow of an Israeli Olympian killed by Palestinian gunmen at the 1972 Munich Olympics, talks to the media during a news conference ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, July 25, 2012, in London. Relatives of the victims are calling on spectators to stage a silent protest during the opening of the London games, but the International Olympic Committee says the opening ceremony is not an appropriate arena to remember the dead, despite pressure from politicians in the United States, Israel and Germany.
    Associated Press

 
By Jim Litke, Associated Press columnist

LONDON -- A minute of silence carved out of a three-hour opening ceremony is not too much to ask. It works out to little more than five seconds for each victim. Besides, the widows and families of the Israeli athletes murdered by Palestinian gunmen at the 1972 Munich Games have been waiting for 40 years.

International Olympic Committee boss Jacques Rogge, who competed as a yachtsman for Belgium that summer, gave them little hope it would happen in the next 40 years, or ever. Yet he and his IOC swells had no problem observing that exact same minute of silence for a Georgian luger killed in a crash just hours before the opening ceremony at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

Try to work out the moral calculus on that one.

"My husband was murdered on Olympic soil," Ilana Romano said. And that's why she thinks it's only fair that he should be commemorated there, too, on the games' grandest stage, instead of at impromptu and out-of-the-way services that few people see and even fewer can derive any satisfaction from. Like so much else about this tragedy, they refuse to believe that's a coincidence.

"They were not accidental tourists," said Anke Spitzer, whose husband, Andrei, was a fencer. "They came with dreams and came home in coffins."

The two women left a meeting Wednesday with Rogge more discouraged than ever. Despite presenting a petition with more than 100,000 signatures as well as the support of a handful of nations, U.S. president Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Spitzer and Romano left with the same answer they've received for decades: No.

At a news conference afterward, they ticked off the reasons given each time their request for a moment of silence was denied: the threat of a boycott by Arab nations; a refusal to inject politics into the games; wrong time, wrong place. Always something or other wrong.

Spitzer believes those are all code for the real answer. "They came from the wrong country," she said, "and the wrong religion."

So this time, the two widows are appealing directly to the audience at Friday's opening ceremony, asking spectators to stand in silence when Rogge takes the stage to speak. The Israeli Olympic Committee, which has compliantly followed the IOC's lead in the matter through the decades, plans no departure from the delegation's standard entry. Whether the rest of the world's athletes will respond remains anyone's guess.

Bob Costas, who has been the lead host of NBC's Olympics coverage for 20 years, told the Hollywood Reporter that he intends to take note of the IOC'S stance when Israeli athletes enter the Olympic Stadium. He has offered no specifics.

If the silent protest fails to have much impact, Spitzer's daughter, Anouk, who born just before the Munich Olympics, says she's prepared to carry on the fight for another 40 years. From the sound of things at the IOC, she'd better be.

"If people stand, so be it," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said Thursday. "They are free to mark it as they wish. We have marked, we continue to mark and we will mark those tragic events in the future. We are doing this year what we think are the most appropriate ways to commemorate what was the darkest day in the history of the Olympics."

On Monday, Rogge delivered an unscheduled tribute and observed a minute of silence for the victims of Munich during a ceremony at the athletes village organized to promote the Olympic truce. On Aug. 6, he'll attend a private ceremony at the Guildhall in the city. On Sept. 5, the day of the attack in 1972. he'll attend a formal commemoration at the airfield in Munich where nine Israelis died in a botched rescue attempt.

"People seem to think we're not marking it," Adams said. "The only issue is how we mark it."

Adams defended the decision to observe a moment of silence for luger Nodar Kumaritashvili by saying the opening ceremony "occurred so close to the terrible event. ... This is not to make comparisons, but in Munich, the games were suspended afterward for a whole day. It has not happened since and we hope it never happens again."

The IOC response in Munich, by any measure, was a travesty. Then-president Avery Brundage barely mentioned the murdered athletes and instead spoke about the need to defend the Olympic movement from commercialism. Along with the Olympic flag, the flags of most of the competing nations were lowered to half staff. Within hours, a dozen Arab nations demanded their flags be returned to the top of the flagpoles.

Since then, kicking Israel around has practically become a sport unto itself.

Iran's Olympians have withdrawn for several Olympic competitions rather than face Israeli opponents -- without being penalized. In what might be only the most egregious example, a Saudi Arabian soccer team refused to play Israel at the Special Olympics in Ireland nearly a decade ago.

That increasing isolation in the sporting world is why Israeli athletes were gathered in Tel Aviv at a memorial to those slain in Munich before heading off for the games. Ultimately, they've come to rely only on each other.

"It's keeping them in our hearts, that's the main thing," Israeli swimming coach Chanan Sterling said. "Everybody knows about it, thinks about it."

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