Munich widow's fight for moment of silence at opener falls on deaf ears
Ankie Spitzer has fought for moment of silence for Israeli athletes since 1976
Spitzer's husband, Andrei Spitzer, was killed in Munich massacre at 1972 Games
She met with IOC chief Jacque Rogge, who said moment wasn't going to happen
Two time zones and 2,200 miles from London, Ankie Spitzer gathered her children at her home outside Tel Aviv to watch the opening ceremonies tonight. Like innumerable others, she marveled at the pageantry and was warmed by the themes of unity, humanitarianism, and sports' singular ability to render borders irrelevant. This was all tempered by sadness, disappointment and, yes, anger, as she waited for one moment that never came.
Forty years ago she was similarly situated, flanked by her family as she watched the Olympics. She was 26 then, tending to her newborn daughter, staying with her parents in native Holland, while her husband, Andrei, was at the Munich Games, coach of the Israeli fencing team. She went to sleep and then her parents woke her up to tell her the news. As the 7,000 Olympic athletes at the Munich Games slept in the early morning of Sept. 5, 1972, eight Palestinians representing the terrorist group Black September scaled a chain-link fence and broke into Connollystrasse 31, the apartment complex within the Olympic Village where the Israelis were lodging. Armed with gym bags full of Kalashnikov rifles, grenades and submachine guns, the terrorists killed the Israeli wrestling coach and a weightlifter. They took nine others hostage. One was Andrei Spitzer.
Dazed, Ankie Spitzer watched the plot unfold on television. In the afternoon, she took a call from Golda Meir, then the Israeli prime minister, telling Spitzer that Israel would not negotiate with terrorists. Spitzer saw her husband on-screen, clad in an undershirt, getting struck in the head with a rifle. When a government spokesman declared that the terrorists had been killed and the Israelis were OK, Spitzer's father opened a bottle of champagne. But Spitzer wasn't going to celebrate until her husband called. He, of course, never did. It was 3:20 a.m. when she heard Jim McKay's now famous declaration: "They're all gone."
Spitzer bristles when she hears that she "devoted her life" to honoring her husband's memory. She had three more children. As a journalist -- one who speaks a half dozen languages -- she has traveled the world. She once interviewed Yasser Arafat and spent two nights with him and his wife at their Gaza home. Speak with Spitzer and, within seconds, it's clear that this is a not woman who's been incapacitated by grief.
Still, she's been fiercely determined in seeking accountability for the Munich massacre and proper honor paid to her husband and his 10 teammates.
"What's right is right," she says. "What happened then isn't right. What happened since isn't right."
For every Olympics since 1976, Spitzer has asked the IOC for a moment of silence at the opening ceremonies to honor the murdered Israelis. For every Olympics since 1976, she has been rebuffed. She says that the IOC's explanations have varied over the years, but none have been satisfactory. She says that she was once told that such a moment of silence wasn't in the Olympic protocol. Yet there have been acknowledgements of atrocities ranging from the Bosnian conflict to 9/11; as recently as the Vancouver Olympics, there was a moment of silence to honor the Georgian luger who died before the Games in a training run.
Spitzer says she was told the moment of silence could spur a boycott among Arab countries. "If they don't understand the Olympic spirit, they should stay home," she says flatly. Similarly, Spitzer has also been told that such a moment of silence would politicize the Games. "Fine," she responded. "Just say they were Olympic athletes, part of the Olympic family." (Officials did stage a moment of silence for those 'who are not with us' during the opening ceremony.) In the spring, she met with IOC President Jacques Rogge -- who, ironically, had competed as a yachtsman in the Munich Olympics -- but again was told no. "The lame excuses have culminated," she says. "I hate to conclude this but [rejection of the moment of silence] is because they were from the wrong country and had the wrong religion."
Now in her mid-60s, Spitzer has aged with the times and, thanks largely to social media, her campaign got all sorts of attention in 2012. Without Spitzer even asking, the U.S., Australia and Germany were among those endorsing the idea of recognizing the Munich tragedy. Last week, President Obama announced that he, too, "absolutely" supported Spitzer's campaign. Mitt Romney did as well. As of earlier today, an on-line petition supporting the moment of silence -- "Tell the International Olympic Committee: 40 Years is Enough!" -- collected more than 110,000 signatures from supporters in 155 countries from Armenia to Zambia. Bob Costas announced he would do what the IOC would not: stay silent for one minute on NBC's airwaves during the ceremony, in homage to the Israelis killed four decades ago.
With public pressure mounting, Rogge met with Spitzer again in London on Wednesday night. She was accompanied by Ilana Romano, widow of the weightlifter who was killed. For 45 minutes she sat across a table from Rogge at his makeshift office at the Park Lane Hilton and laid out her case again. She recalls asking Rogge to acknowledge the political winds. "What do you think, I'm blind?" he asked Spitzer. "Yes, I do think you're blind," she shot back. "Because every normal thinking person would say, 'It's not about the little poor widow banging on my door every four years.' It's about the morally right thing to do."
Finally Rogge leaned across the table, Spitzer says. "I'm not going to do it." As he leaned in to hug them, they turned away, vowing to return.
None of this kept Spitzer from watching Friday's ceremony. All the while, she thought of her husband, as she always does while watching the ceremony. What would he have thought if he had seen the way Olympics had grown? What would he have made of Danny Boyle's spectacular production? Or seeing Israel's delegation of 37 athletes? There was no moment of silence, though. So she'll continue trying to be heard.