Print and Go Back ESPN.com: ESPN [Print without images]

Wednesday, September 4, 2002
Updated: September 5, 6:25 PM ET
Keeping the torch lit

By Tom Farrey
ESPN.com

SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio -- When the International Olympic Committee was asked to comment on its honoring of the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches slain on its watch, the introduction to the response, formed in an e-mail message, was as telling as any of the language that followed in the official statement.

"Please find hereunder the quote of the IOC President on Munich 1972," a spokesperson wrote.

Benjamin Berger and other family members of the 11 Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian terrorists have waited 30 years for the IOC to remember the tragedy of the Munich Olympics.
Three decades later, time has reduced the tragedy to shorthand -- Munich 1972 -- a term that can only mean one thing. The terrorist killings remain the defining event of those Olympic Games, more than the mind-boggling feats of Mark Spitz, the enchantment of Olga Korbut, and the Cold War controversy that ended the U.S.-U.S.S.R. basketball game.

If anything, the relevance of the athletes' murders by Arab extremists has only grown since Sept. 11, when terrorism hit home for citizens of America.

Still, Olympic leaders have offered scant recognition of the politically sensitive chapter in the Games' history, to the lasting disappointment of family members of the victims.

"I'd like to see them acknowledge that this occurred," said Dr. Benjamin Berger, father of the late weightlifter David Berger, an American who competed for Israel as a dual citizen. "There should be a moment of silence, not just for those athletes but for all victims of terrorism."

Shortly before dawn on Sept. 5, 1972, a group of heavily armed Arab men climbed a fence at the Olympic Village and stormed the dormitory where the Israeli delegation was sleeping. A coach and an athlete were killed in the attack, and another nine were taken hostage by the terrorists, who declared their intent to murder them unless Israel released Arab prisoners from its jails.

When the Israeli government refused to negotiate, the terrorists demanded that an airplane be arranged to fly them and the hostages to another country, believed to be in the Middle East. At a nearby airport, the rest of the Israeli athletes, as well as five of the eight attackers, died in a botched rescue attempt by German authorities.

Olympic leaders insist they have repeatedly honored those who were killed. They point to a memorial ceremony at the Munich stadium the day after the Israelis were taken hostage. Most recently, IOC president Jacques Rogge cited the massacre in his opening speech at an all-delegates session in Salt Lake City in February.

"The tragic death of innocent athletes at the Olympic Games in 1972 in Munich in most dramatic circumstances was a direct attack on the most fundamental Olympic values," Rogge said in a statement provided to ESPN.com. "The memory of the victims of Munich will never be forgotten out of respect for them and as a message for the future."

Benjamin Berger, kneeling beneath the David Berger National Monument, has been pleading with IOC officials for a public remembrance for the athletes killed at Munich.
Shown Rogge's statement, Berger shakes his head, dismissively.

A Cleveland-area doctor who raised his son in the U.S., Berger is standing next to a mass of artfully bent iron on the front lawn of a local Jewish community center. The David Berger National Memorial in nearby Cleveland Heights was built in 1978, largely on compassion. A local industrialist donated the materials, a sculptor offered up its design, and a laborer contributed the concrete work.

The sculpture consists of a series of broken Olympic rings, angled in a wave, Berger says, to emphasize that hope for progress should survive even tragedy. Former Ohio senator Howard Metzenbaum, a friend of Berger's since high school, helped it to become designated a national monument.

There has been no absence of other random, heartfelt gestures over the years. The government of Haiti, where the doctor had once inoculated newborns against disease on a humanitarian mission, issued a postage stamp of David Berger shortly his death. A German woman who was not related to the victims gave her entire estate, about $10,000, to their families in the '70s.

Other statues and monuments can be found at the former Olympic Village in Munich and nearby Furstenfeldbruck, the military airport where Berger and others died, as well as a school in Sydney, Australia. Each year, the Israeli Olympic Committee holds a ceremony at a sports event to perpetuate the memory of the victims.

Then there was the brief phone call Ben Berger received a quarter century ago from an unidentified man, who also had not forgotten his son.

"We got them," said a voice with an Israeli accent.

Berger immediately knew what that meant. With their government's blessing, Israeli hit squads had avenged the death of his son by killing two of the three remaining terrorists who were suspected of planning and carrying out the Munich massacre.

But more dead bodies were not what Ben and Dorothy Berger had in mind.

An Israeli athlete lays a wreath at the memorial statue erected two years ago in Munich.
"When this first happened," Ben Berger says of the Olympic tragedy, "there was an item in the paper that said the Israelis were going to bomb 11 Arab villages in response. And we went on national television and said that absolutely was wrong. That you couldn't do eye-for-eye because that would go on forever.

"We never changed our mind after that. Now, whether or not we would have changed our mind," Berger takes a deep breath here, "it didn't matter. Because I'm sure that's how David would have felt. He was a pacifist in the true sense of the word. So I didn't get any satisfaction out of it because I know he wouldn't have. That's the kind of person he was."

David Berger wrote poems in protest of the Vietnam War. He cringed at the nationalistic strain of the Olympics, while embracing its ideals. He also felt deeply about social justice, telling his father that he thought everyone, whether that person was a lawyer or garbage collector, should make the same salary for a day's work.

Berger was a top student with three degrees, including a juris doctorate from Columbia University, but his dream was participating in the Munich Games. With little hope of making the U.S. team, he moved to Israel after school and continued his training. There he also taught mentally and physically challenged children to lift weights.

He won no medals at Munich. He didn't expect to. But he walked in the opening ceremonies, which was good enough for him.

In other words, David Berger in many ways embodied what the IOC describes as the Olympic spirit.

"Four years later (at the Montreal Olympics), we just assumed there was going to be an acknowledgement," Ben Berger says. "There wasn't."

A few years after that, he wrote letters to Olympic officials requesting such a gesture. But no one ever replied, he says.

The families of other victims also have made appeals, with no success. They say the Munich memorial the day after the murders was inadequate because it served in part as a forum for the IOC to announce that the Games would continue, and only two of the athletes had been confirmed dead at that point.

Rogge's response
ESPN.com requested an interview with International Olympic Committee president Dr. Jacques Rogge to discuss the tragedy at the Munich Olympics. He responded via e-mail with this statement:

"The tragic death of innocent athletes at the Olympic Games in 1972 in Munich in most dramatic circumstances was a direct attack on the most fundamental Olympic values. The memory of the victims of Munich will never be forgotten out of respect for them and as a message for the future.

The members of the Israeli team who died in Munich have been honoured at the Games in 1972 and by the Olympic Movement on various occasions, most recently during the IOC Session in Salt Lake City when I recalled the tragedy in my opening speech. For the Olympic Movement, the main consequences are that:

  • We will never forget.

  • We drew the lessons on the security front and put in place drastic measures in the hope to avoid such a tragedy to happen again in the future.

  • This strengthened the determination of the Olympic Movement to contribute more than ever to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit."

    Dr. Jacques Rogge
    President
    International Olympic Committee
  • As for Rogge's remarks in Salt Lake, Berger can't recall them -- with good reason. They were made at the opening speech of an IOC members meeting, not before a worldwide television audience at one of the public ceremonies.

    "It is very important for us to ask the world to stand still for a minute, half a minute, or 15 seconds and remember what happened in Munich not because it was my husband," said Ankie Spitzer, widow of late Israeli fencing coach Andre Spitzer. "I think if the world would have listened, 30 years later we would not be in a (terrorism) situation which has not improved at all."

    But rising tensions in the Middle East, made more acute by the events of Sept. 11, have also served as a chill on the IOC to commemorate the dead. The Los Angeles Times reported in February that confidential IOC minutes from a meeting prior to the 2000 Sydney Olympics suggest the committee had received "threatening letters on this question from six or seven different Arab national Olympic committees."

    More than elsewhere in the world, Arab countries look back at the Munich massacre not merely as an isolated terrorist action at a sports event, but part of a larger social struggle against Israel. The Munich terrorists, some of whose families were relocated after World War II when the nation of Israel was created, are seen by some as heroes for raising the world's awareness of the Palestinian crisis.

    IOC member Tony Khoury, of Lebanon, opposes any ceremony for the Israelis. "Believe me, like all human beings I was -- I am -- sick about the deaths of all the (Israeli) athletes," he said in an interview earlier this year. "In my opinion, with all due respect ... for the opening ceremony, and the Olympic Games, it is best not to interfere politically."

    Ankie Spitzer says religion and nation can be stripped from any possible ceremony.

    "They don't have to remember that there were 11 Israelis or 11 Jews," she says. "These were 11 athletes with a dream who came back in a coffin."

    Rogge said earlier this year that he has "no reservations about doing more in the future" to commemorate the dead. But nothing is planned, according to an IOC spokesperson. For now, the IOC's mantra of keeping the Olympics focused on the Games and its athletes -- not politics - does not include any callout to its Munich Games and its murdered athletes, who paid the greatest price for their Olympic participation.

    Few things have changed in David Berger's old bedroom, other than the addition of a commemorative plaque of the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches killed at Munich.
    Ben, 85, and Dorothy Berger, 81, are elderly now. They have been encouraging this initiative a long time, and they are trying to come to peace with the notion that nothing more may be done by the IOC. They say they do know such a gesture won't diminish the loss of their son, the pain from which, as they have learned, does not subside even after 30 years.

    They keep their spirits up by keeping his memory alive, through scholarship programs the family established at the three colleges where he received degrees. David's boyhood room in the home they have lived in for 58 years remains decorated with his trophies, and diplomas, and the same blue-green shag carpet that speaks of the 1960s. They visit his nearby grave regularly, and tell David Berger stories to their grandson David, who was named by a sister for an uncle he never got to meet.

    One of their more poignant tales: How one of David Berger's best friends in Israel was a weightlifter of Arab descent, and how it bothered him when he believed his friend was left off the Israeli weightlifting team because of his race.

    "The IOC needs to be reminded that the Olympics are something more than the World Series of their sports," Ben Berger said. "If they acknowledge these athletes, it raises the whole level of the event."

    For the Bergers, it's as much about honoring the Games' ideals as honoring the dead.

    Tom Farrey is a Senior Writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at tom.farrey@espn3.com.