One Step Closer to Peace
Steven Ungerleider had planned to attend the 1972 Olympics in Munich, but when his father died suddenly, he left his doctoral work at the University of Oregon to be with his mother in New York.
It was there, watching on TV, that Ungerleider learned of an event that would shake the Olympic community to its core.
“I remember to this moment where I was sitting when Jim McKay and Howard Cosell broke in and said, ‘We have a terrible tragedy,’” said Ungerleider, a Eugene psychologist and author who is working with the International Olympic Committee on a memorial for the Munich victims. “We were just glued to the TV for days.”
On Sept. 5, 1972, eight Palestinians from the Black September terrorist group attacked members of the Israeli Olympic team as they slept. Two Israelis were killed in the initial confrontation, and nine others died in a failed rescue attempt.
McKay’s solemn words — “Our worst fears have been realized” — brought home the gravity of the event. The tragedy has been memorialized in history books and a Steven Spielberg film, but until recently, Ungerleider says, the IOC remained largely silent.
Silent, that is, except for one moment when silence would have spoken volumes. The widow of one of the slain Israeli athletes petitioned for a moment of silence at the 2012 games in London to mark the 40th anniversary of the tragedy. The IOC refused, saying it didn’t want to politicize the games or divert attention from the athletes.
Ungerleider, a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s panel for sport psychology and a consultant to the IOC, said the organization caved to anti-Israel sentiment in the Middle East by staying silent. It was a political calculation, he said, and one that prevented victims’ families from finding closure.
“For the Olympic movement under their past three presidents not to acknowledge, not give honor to the victims, has been disgusting,” Ungerleider said. “It’s despicable. It’s unfair, immoral and caused a lot of harm.
“I think, quite frankly, previous presidents and previous boards said, ‘If we do something for the Israelis, we’re going to get hammered from our Saudi friends and the constituency from the Arab nations.’”
That began to change under IOC president Thomas Bach, who took office in 2013. Bach, a gold-medal fencer for the West German Olympic team in 1976, knew the Israeli athletes and felt a responsibility to honor them, Ungerleider said.
Last year, the IOC agreed to contribute $250,000 toward the Munich memorial, a joint project between the governments of Germany and Israel.
“Dr. Bach said, ‘I’ll probably take a couple political hits for this, but I want to move forward with this to honor the victims,’” Ungerleider said.
Ungerleider flew to Munich last fall to participate in selecting an architect for the memorial, which is scheduled to be completed in time for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The design will feature a series of cuts into a hillside overlooking the site of the attack and the Olympic stadium.
Ungerleider filmed part of his trip and — along with David Ulich, his partner with the Foundation for Global Sports Development — had the idea to make a documentary about the building of the Munich memorial. They enlisted two documentary filmmakers for the project and hope to screen it in film festivals this fall.
In May, Ulich and Ungerleider will travel to Israel to film interviews with families of the Munich victims. The goal isn’t to recreate the tragedy, Ulich said, but to document the 40-year healing process that followed.
“The real focus of the documentary is not to point fingers,” Ulich said. “There have been other movies made about what happened in Munich. Our purpose is to tie what happened into the building of the memorial.”
The IOC’s response to the Munich attack created controversy from the start. President Avery Brundage was criticized for not mentioning the Israeli victims in a memorial service the next day, and the decision to continue the Munich games was controversial in itself.
Filming interviews for the documentary, Ungerleider saw how the attacks struck at the heart of the Olympic ideal. Pal Schmitt, a gold-medal fencer at Munich who later became president of Hungary, spoke of leaving the Olympics and wondering if anyone would return.
“He said, ‘It was the worst nightmare of my life. I think about it every day. I thought the Olympic movement was dead,’” Ungerleider said.
The Olympics survived, but the Munich tragedy has continued to haunt. For those still grieving, Ungerleider hopes the memorial can bring a sense of closure.
“What I’ve been learning is that this particular event has had far-reaching consequences,” he said. “Those who came after keep asking questions: ‘Why can’t we put this to rest?’”
Maybe now they’re one step closer.