Why the Opening Ceremony Is the Perfect Time To Honor the Israeli Athletes Murdered at the 1972 Games

Five-Ring Circus
A Blog About the Olympic Games
July 27 2012 12:11 PM

Why the Opening Ceremony Is the Perfect Time To Honor the Israeli Athletes Murdered at the 1972 Games

Jacques Rogge
IOC President Jacques Rogge says the opening ceremony is not the appropriate atmosphere to remember slain Israeli athletes.

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

It’s been 40 years since members of the terrorist group Black September murdered 11 Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics. The athletes were kidnapped from their living quarters, brought to an airport, and—despite the German government’s best attempts to recover them—shot to death. IOC President Jacques Rogge has resisted an international push to honor the athletes with a minute of silence during tonight’s opening ceremony in London. President Obama, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, and the German and Israeli foreign ministers have all pressed him to reconsider. Bob Costas has also said that he intends to honor the Israelis during NBC’s broadcast of the opening ceremony.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is Slate’s words correspondent. 

What’s Rogge’s reasoning? “We feel that the opening ceremony is an atmosphere that is not fit to remember such a tragic incident,” the IOC president said last Friday. Instead, the committee will pay tribute to the slain athletes with a small reception in London on Aug. 6. IOC officials, including Rogge, will also attend a memorial service on Sept. 5 at the airfield in Germany where the Israelis were executed.

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There’s been speculation that Rogge, like his predecessor Juan Antonio Samaranch, wants to tread softly around any issue that might lead Arab nations to boycott the Olympics. Whether that’s true or not, Rogge is absolutely wrong about one thing: The opening ceremony of the London Games would be the perfect atmosphere for remembering the Israelis murdered in 1972.

That’s not just because the games supposedly exist to promote tolerance and harmony. An even better reason to add a minute of silence to today’s ceremony is that it’s thematically appropriate. The first scene of tonight’s ceremony, which has been masterminded by English director Danny Boyle, will reportedly “transform [the Olympic Stadium] into the British countryside.” The scene, entitled “Green and Pleasant,” will feature more than 100 “real farmyard animals” traipsing around an actual meadow.

Why would it make sense to interrupt this pastoral fantasy with silence? The phrase “green and pleasant” comes from a William Blake poem called—irony  alert—“Jerusalem.” Sir Hubert Parry set the poem to music in 1916, transforming it into something close to a British national anthem. (You can hear the song’s rousing strains in the last scene of Chariots of Fire.)

The closing stanza reads:

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

Not only does this text invoke Israel’s holiest region by name, then, it also contains explicit references to war and struggle. The poem is not just about pleasantness and fertility, and it certainly doesn’t advocate ignoring bloodshed. With that line about a “mental fight,” Blake urges us to reflect on things that hurt us, to confront painful thoughts in order to push back against the harsh realities they represent. That’s how a relatively humdrum “green and pleasant” land becomes the cradle for Jerusalem, heaven on earth.

All of which means that this particular opening ceremony is exactly the right place to remember the 11 Israelis who died in Munich in 1972. Jacques Rogge needs a better excuse.