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Humanity demands that we stop for a minute

By Vic Alhadeff - posted Monday, 2 July 2012

I interviewed Yael Arad for the Australian Jewish News when she came to Sydney as coach of Israel's judo team for the 2000 Olympics. The first Israeli to win an Olympic medal, for judo in 1992, she imparted something which resonated then, has remained with me to this day and encapsulates the sentiment underpinning the campaign that has touched thousands of people around the world - the quest for a minute's silence at the London Olympics opening ceremony.

As an integral aspect of its preparations for every Olympics, she said, the members of Israel's team meet with the families of the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches murdered by terrorists at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

Comprehending why they do so is to grasp the fraught overlay of politics and prejudice which accompanies the Israeli athlete into the Olympic arena. It is to understand that when they step onto the track with Israel's Star of David on their uniforms, they are doing more than striving to win a medal. That is the untrammelled goal of athletes from other nations - nations untroubled by politics or terrorism.


Alongside the Israeli athlete's pursuit of success is the reality that they are reaffirming their right to take a place among the family of nations.

Against a backdrop marred increasingly by campaigns to boycott all things Israeli, this implicit assertion stands against a history which has seen, for example:

  • Israeli Yuval Wischnitzer jeered by 100,000 Russians at the World University Games in Moscow a year after Munich.
  • Chinese silver- and bronze-medallists at the Asian Games in Teheran refuse to shake hands with gold-medallist EstherRoth, a member of Israel's team in Munich.
  • Iranians refuse to compete against Israelis at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, and an Algerian kayaker stop paddling at the World Cup in Germany last month because an Israeli was in the race.

The Israeli athlete competes with the knowledge that 11 teammates were murdered for no reason other than that they represented the Jewish State, that the athlete is running their unfinished race.

At the Sydney Olympics the first permanent memorial to the 11 was erected at an Olympic venue, with the support of the Australian Olympic Committee. Yet something else happened in Sydney. While one billion television viewers watched the opening ceremony, another story took place out of sight of the cameras. As the teams entered the arena in alphabetical order, athletes from Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait and Lebanon found themselves mingling. Whether by chance or design, only they knew. Yet they spent two hours conversing, exchanging pins, connecting.

In 2002 Israelis competed in the European Athletics Championships in Munich - the honour of representing their country tempered by profound awareness that they were competing for the first time in the Olympic Village where their fellow athletes were murdered. Israeli pole-vaulter Alex Averbukh won a gold medal, the first time in the history of the competition that an Israeli had won gold. The medal ceremony was held late in the day and a packed stadium of 50,000 German spectators stayed to watch. In a rousing gesture, they rose as one to salute a visibly emotional Averbukh as Israel's anthem was played.


Recently Canada's House of Commons became the first parliament to unanimously call for a minute's silence at the London Olympics in memory of the 11. Last week a similar motion was unanimously passed by Australia's Federal Parliament, joining Germany's Bundestag, the US Congress, the United Kingdom and Israel in backing the idea. Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell and Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu have also signed a letter of support.

At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver a minute's silence was held at the opening ceremony to honour Georgian Nodar Kumaritashvili, killed in a luge training accident. International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge officiated. But Rogge steadfastly rejects the request for a minute's silence in London, seemingly dissuaded by the Euro-centric hue of the IOC – 42 of its 105 members are European – and by the notion that doing so might politicise the event.

Yet Ankie Spitzer, wife of fencing coach Andre Spitzer - one of the murdered 11 - insists: "You don't have to say they were Israeli or Jewish. Just say that 11 members of the Olympic family were murdered and should be remembered."

Humanity demands no less.

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About the Author

Vic Alhadeff is Chief Executive of the Jewish Board of Deputies and a former Chair of the NSW Community Relations Commission.

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