As Aliza Worthington reminds us, this summer marks the 40th anniversary of the “Munich Massacre.” I was seven years old when it occurred. I vividly remember watching the images on television coming from the Olympic village. Members of the Palestinian terrorist group, “Black September,” killed two members of the Israeli delegation and took nine other Israeli athletes and coaches hostage. The nine were then eventually murdered as well.
It is unfortunate that this coming week, as athletes and coaches and all lovers of sport (as they say in the United Kingdom, always in the singular) gather in London for the 2012 Olympics, there will be no official remembrance of this tragic loss, no memorial, not even a moment of silence. As Aliza shared, there have been repeated requests over the years, each time it’s been denied by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
On this Friday, at 11:00 a.m. (GMT), the same day as the opening ceremony there will be a commemoration held in Trafalgar Square, in the heart of London. However, it won’t be organized by the IOC. “Everybody is welcome, regardless of colour or creed,” the organizers claim. It won’t be a political rally for Israel. It’s designed to publicly commemorate the murder of the eleven athletes, “to remind people that this atrocity occurred and to honour the memory of those who were killed – something the IOC has refused to do.”
NBC news Sports anchor Bob Costas plans to have his own on-air commemoration during the opening ceremony. He also plans to mention the IOC’s denial when the Israeli athletes enter the Olympic Stadium. On Tuesday this week, the Washington Post weighed in with a critique of the IOC.
The IOC claims the games are apolitical, they are celebratory in nature, they are expressions of unity, of nations coming together despite their differences to unite the human spirit around something of a shared passion, namely athletic training and competition. Still, the Olympic games, as everyone knows, have always been about more than the games. There’s always a political subtext to them – this was especially so during the Cold War. Denying all of this doesn’t change the reality; it actually distorts reality, turning the Olympics into something fantastical and imaginary and out of touch with human experience.
I’m particularly struck by the IOC’s policy of denial with regard to the Munich Massacre – nothing, not even a moment of silence.
In talking about this issue with Aliza, I had an image of the IOC taking the whole affair and placing it in a dark room and throwing away the key. It was the image of the IOC taking the whole affair and throwing into shadow, into the dark. If it’s in the dark, you can’t “see” it.” If you can’t “see” it, then you don’t have to acknowledge it. If you don’t talk about it, it didn’t happen. If you don’t recognize it, then you don’t have to deal with it, don’t have to come to terms with what transpired.
What is true personally is also true collectively: a lot of damage is done when we are caught in the grips of denial. Yes, facing the truth, facing the light can be painful. It’s easier to avoid the truth, avoid the light. We often think, “out of sight, out of mind,” but this simply isn’t true. That which is denied continues to have a hold on us, even when we don’t “see” it. Denial never serves us well and it can be very destructive – for individuals, families, and communities, even nations. What is being denied continues to exert influences over our conscious lives, often unconsciously – which is rarely a good thing.
A contrasting image came to mind: the Olympic torch, the flame, a symbol of light. As I played with this image, I had a thought: Here’s an opportunity for the IOC to extend some light into a dark corner of our past, but it chooses not to do so. How ironic.
In the Olympics of ancient Greece, a flame was ignited by the sun and kept burning throughout the games. It commemorated the time when Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humanity. Fire is a spark of, an offspring of the sun and therefore a manifestation of divinity. The fiery torch was a reminder that Prometheus enabled human beings to participate in “all things divine” and encouraged human beings to become like the gods themselves. The Olympic torch is the light of the gods given to enable and ennoble human beings to strive for something beyond themselves.
The Olympic flame first appeared in modern Olympics in 1928 when the games gathered in Amsterdam. At the Berlin Olympics in 1936, the torch became a propaganda tool of the Nazis. Devious masters of ritual and the symbolic that they were, the Nazis “stole” the image from Prometheus to help fuel the flames of their devilish destruction in Europe. "Sporting chivalrous contest helps knit the bonds of peace between nations,” Adolf Hitler declared. “Therefore may the Olympic flame never expire."
The Olympic torch relay was first introduced by the Nazis for the Berlin games. Carl Diem, organizer of the relay, said, “The Olympic torch is designed to shine through the centuries, a signal of peaceful understanding between nations, with the aim of arousing more and more enthusiasm for the ideal of humanity.” The flame was lit in Olympia, Greece, and then relayed through Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Germany. In two years, the Nazis reversed the path of the torch, relaying its own hellish fire of destruction, starting with the Anschluss into Austria in 1938.
Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the IOC from 1980-2001, said that the Olympic Games, "Pay tribute first and foremost to the athletes. By demanding the best of themselves they encourage us to excel; by reaching the limit of their capabilities, they push back the limits of mankind."
The IOC is missing an opportunity to shed some light into a dark corner of its past, as well as a dark corner of the human past. It was not only a loss of Israeli citizens forty years ago; it was a human loss, a loss for humanity. The IOC has an opportunity to help us “push back the limits of mankind” by modeling a way for humanity as a whole to respond with “the better angels of our nature.” It’s an occasion to be angels of light, bearing the torch into the dark places in the world. It’s an opportunity to model for the world a different way, a better way of being human. The IOC’s intentional act of denial hinders an expression of much-needed humanism in our day and obstructs an opportunity to bring healing to the wounds of the past.
“The sole purpose of human existence,” the Swiss psychoanalyst C. G. Jung claimed, “is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” May we have the courage to do so.