Joel Oppenheimer Reflects On The ’72 Olympics Shootings


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September 14, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 37

the ’72 olympics: switching back to real life
by joel oppenheimer

On tuesday september 5 17 people died violently at the olympic games. eight died through some choice: moshe weinberg and joseph roman who tried to resist, five members of the black september group of palestinian nationalists who could not have gone on their mission without assuming the probability of death, and a west german policeman, the nature of whose calling must admit the possibility of a violent end; the other nine isrealie hostages died without options. nothing i say can change any of these terrible facts, nor make life easier.

now it is three days later, and, while the west german government warns jews not to open packages or letters during the high holy days lest they contain bombs, the ioc has decided to take away some medals, to prohibit some athletes from further participation in the games because they slouched and talked during the playing of their national anthem, and they have decided that the games will go on.

decisions, decisions. when the terrorists published a list of their demands, golda emir decided not to compromise. someone in the bar decided she was a ballsy woman. the west germans then made a decision to try to pick off the arabs using five snipers and long shadows. the snipers missed. abc and cbs had a hell of a time making decisions over who should get to use the satellite so they could carry the “news” to us. i am in no position to comment on the reasons for making these decisions — i am responsible for neither the existence of israel nor the image of germany — i can know only that in these circumstances no “decision” could be correct.

decisions like this are made by people in one place about people in another. the members of the norweigian squad who decided to go home because they thought the games had been resumed for purely commercial reasons made their own decision about their own actions. even the egyptians, flying home out of fear, made their own decisions about themselves. perhaps even the athletes who continued playing ping-pong while the horror went on made the right decision. what else would you have them do? should they have lined the fences with the rest of the spectators? even, god damn it, consider the possibility that the terrorists made the right decision, if history will tell our grandchildren so.

i am angry that serious old men make decisions, make decisions, make decisions. nothing the young do can be worse — even murder. it is the old men making decisions who fuel the young mad-men, con the young jocks, fuck up the young heads. we are supposed to be passing on wisdom and understanding and we have none, but everybody breathes a sigh of relief when we do anything that smacks of being a decision. the german sniper who started the firing thought he had a shot at it. he was wrong, but that was what he had been put there to try.

it is silly to ask that death be bigger than the olympics. we so desperately and perhaps properly fear death that we want anything to be bigger than it. a woman called “a.m. new york” tuesday morning and said “i went to sleep last night and i woke up this morning and all this was happening.” it was a very simple, very human, and, also, a very stupid, plea. it asked that the world go on without the world’s interference. or, like the young canoeist said at kennedy last night, “we were way over at the other end. we didn’t know what was going on.”

it seems to me that, while these olympics do go on, they have ended. we will never again, i think, be allowed the luxury of so totally watching, simply and with care, a man falling down while trying to lift the heaviest weight in the world, or trying to run faster than anyone in the world, or even trying to beat someone up. we will not see one man toss his enemy over his head backward by main strength, to fall on him and pin him. we will not have this circus any more except in small places where small boys try to stretch themselves. they complain about the jocks, they talk snidely about the runners worried about their training while men were dying — but what, ever, has the juggler been able to present to our lady but his skill?

i ask you to consider this particularly now, because there are so many others for you to judge. judge those who cry for vengeance and those who turn their faces. judge those who condone the terrorists. judge those who call for more guns to protect us from them or them from us. judge the rabbis who this very week will deliver sermons tying this terror to the need to vote for nixon. judge the commentators who already have begun to push and haul the universe until it fits their idea of it — and if i am one of them, judge me, for god’s sake.

let us have done with horse-shit! chris schenkel switched to volleyball for just a second during the terrible morning, to show us that the games were still in progress. then he said it: i guess we’d better go back to the real world, if that’s what it is. you bet your sweet ass, chris, not that i’d want to call it that, but what else is it? the real world, where simpletons pick a thing and try to do it well, while geniuses make decisions.

hidden in all this news this week was a tiny item about a court ruling in arizona, where the students of a college had voted the artichoke their team mascot and pink and white its colors. the judge found for the college, allowing them to throw the students’ out, thus preserving the moral fiber of the cosmos.

the wisdom and understanding i have is this: security is a game, governments are a game, decisions are a game, and unless you understand this you too are a game. pheidippides ran the 26 miles because he was hired to do a job he could do better than anyone else. he carried the message and he dropped dead for it. it was a message about men killing each other. of all of them, who died best?

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