Middle East

Rio 2016 Olympics: Widow's wish sees ceremony mark killings of Israeli athletes

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Media captionIsraeli competitors at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972

Forty-four years is a long time to wait for anything, but for Ankie Spitzer it has taken four decades to get the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to hold an official memorial for her husband.

Andre Spitzer was one of the 11 Israelis killed at the 1972 Games in Munich.

In the early hours of 5 September, Palestinian militants from the Black September group clambered over security fences at the Olympic Village, made their way to the Israelis' quarters and took a group of them hostage.

It was an event that would change security at the Olympic Games forever.

The militants, who murdered two of the Israeli athletes, demanded the release of more than 200 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. It ended with a botched rescue attempt by German police in which all nine of the remaining hostages, and a policeman, were killed.

Image caption Andre and Ankie were married for just over a year before he was killed

"Nobody ever thought something so terrible would happen," says Ankie, sitting in her home, north of Tel Aviv.

Many of her memories still seem raw.

"Just a few hours after the murder I went into the room of my husband where they were all held hostage. I cannot even describe to you the chaos when I opened the door of the apartment."

Image copyright AP
Image caption Ankie Spitzer in the room where her husband, Andre, was held hostage
Image copyright AP
Image caption The crisis played out live on television around the world

That was when she pledged to herself and the man to whom she had been married for just 15 months that she would make sure the world knew about what happened.

Their daughter, Anouk, was just two months old when she was left fatherless.

After years of struggle and letter-writing, Ankie Spitzer and the other victims' relatives have the consolation of a memorial ceremony in the athletes' village in Rio, where a memorial stone will be unveiled.

It also commemorates the two victims of a bin bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Games and Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died in an accident at the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The stone will also be displayed at the athletes' village when the Games take place in Tokyo in 2020.

Image caption Ankie Spitzer collected more than 110,000 signatures for a minute's silence at the 2012 London Olympics, but the IOC declined the request

Mrs Spitzer, now 70 years old, remains determined. "We never will give up our hope that there will be a moment of silence at the opening ceremony," she says.

That is because the event is watched by billions of people around the world and the perfect showcase for her message of remembering in order to make sure such tragedy never strikes again.

Security fears

However, the Olympics' global profile is the very reason why the Games are "an aspired target for various terrorist organisations round the world", according to Yoram Schweitzer, of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies.

He says "IS [so-called Islamic State], its affiliates, its supporters and rivals such as al-Qaeda all look at the Olympic Games as a possible target" for the worldwide attention an attack would get them.

Israel is sending its largest ever delegation of 47 athletes to Rio, and while Munich transformed Olympic security for everyone, Mr Schweitzer still thinks the threat to the Israeli team is unique.

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Image caption Nine captives and a German policeman were killed in a shoot-out at Furstenfeldbruck airport

"Israel itself has been considered as a prime target of any Olympic Games and thus the Israelis allocate resources and manpower to safeguard our Olympic teams" so they "never again experience" what happened in 1972.

Whilst the shadow of Munich will always hang over Israel's Olympians, sport and not security will be their primary concern, says Yael Arad, the first Israeli ever to stand on an Olympic podium, winning silver in the 61kg judo event at Barcelona in 1992.

When I asked her about how she balanced the demands of competition with knowing the she was a potential target in the packed arena, she pointed to the focus and determination she regards as essential to any athlete.

"To be an athlete on these levels you need mental resilience and part of the mental resilience is to think only about winning, to bring 100% of yourself to the competition and to put all the noises around you to the side," she said.

Now on the board of the Israeli Olympic Committee, the 49-year-old acknowledges that Munich is very much part of the Israeli Olympic story.

The athletes will take part in the landmark ceremony in Rio's athletes' village, one she considers "very important" and which she says the Israeli Olympic Committee regards as "part of closing the circle".

The massacre in Munich "happened under the umbrella of the IOC", she says, and that is why it is important the organisation hosts a memorial to help ensure it "will never happen again".

Years of resistance

Yael Arad will not be drawn on why it has taken more than four decades for the Olympic family to formally pay tribute to 11 of its own, but like Ankie Spitzer, she regards the approach of new IOC President Thomas Bach as crucial.

The IOC told the BBC: "The creation of a mourning place was a recommendation stemming from the Olympic Agenda 2020", which is where Thomas Bach outlined his vision for the future of the movement. Rio is his first Games as president.

Ankie Spitzer says she has asked for a minute of silence ever since the 1976 Games.

The request was turned down, and she says she was told it was "because then there were 21 Arab delegations and if they [the IOC] would do a memorial all these delegations would boycott, and they would go home". There have been other "excuses" since.

Image caption A permanent memorial in Tel Aviv commemorates the Munich Olympics attack victims

The Olympic historian, Jules Boykoff, author of the recently-released Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, says part of the explanation for the delay was "a guiding fiction that the IOC has long clung to - that politics and sports don't mix".

That paradigm has changed under Thomas Bach.

Mr Boykoff says there is no question a ceremony would be controversial for some of Israel's political foes, but for the IOC there were also other reasons for keeping politics away from the Games.

"If they could keep politics, hot-button politics, off the agenda then they could focus on sport, and let's be honest on the money-making that is attendant to the Olympics," he says.

The Rio Games are the first to be held in South America but the ceremony at the Olympic village means they will also be the first in a new chapter of Olympic history.