Israelis plan center to honor slain athletes, stop terror

JERUSALEM — September is the cruelest month for Oz and Eyal Shapira. Oz was just 13 and Eyal 15 on September 5, 1972, when they learned that their father, Amizur, was one of 11 Israeli athletes killed or taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics.

At midnight of that endless day Oz and Eyal were thrilled to hear the hostages had been freed. But the next morning their joy turned to horror when the hideous truth was revealed: All 11 men were dead.

"A taboo was broken at Munich," says Tzipi Shapira, Oz Shapira's wife. Since then, soccer games in Europe have become the scenes of fatal clashes between fans of rival teams. Earlier this week the threat of terror seemed to have reached monstrous proportions: New Zealand police uncovered an apparent plot to explode a nuclear reactor in Sydney during this year's Olympic Games.

As an antidote to this spiral of terror and violence, the Shapiras and other families have banded together as the Committee for the Memorial of the Eleven Athletes, a registered nonprofit organization, chaired by Tzipi Shapira. Their goal is to build a sports and cultural center in Israel that would commemorate their loved ones, encourage research on terror in sports and promote the values the Olympics were meant to embody.

It would be a meeting place for Israeli and Palestinian athletes and for delegations from abroad. It would also provide a home for the nationwide gymnastics organization Tzipi Shapira heads and the fitness training Oz Shapira provides to youngsters preparing for their compulsory army service.

The center is to be in Oranit, a community on the Green Line, 12 miles northeast of Tel Aviv, where several of the families live. Israeli architect Shalom Kelner designed the planned three-story center, which is to include facilities for basketball, volleyball, indoor and outdoor wall climbing, gymnastics, wrestling, weightlifting, mountain biking and fitness training.

A library for research on sports terror is to have glass walls, affording a panoramic view of the hills of Samaria. There will also be a 320-seat hall for lectures, performances and documentary films. A guest house next to the center will accommodate up to 40 visiting athletes and their coaches. The complex, atop a hill on a 12.5 acre landscaped site, will be visible for miles around. Its highest point is to be a memorial hall for the 11 slain athletes, containing information about them and topped by a steep glass pyramid. At night, architect Kelner says, the pyramid will be "a torch to warn people that terror and violence can happen in sports."

Meanwhile, every four years in September, as the torch is lit to start the Olympic Games, the wound opens again for the families of the 11. Memories rush back of the Munich horror.

As Eyal Shapira relates, it was the middle of the night when eight Black September terrorists scaled the fence at Munich's Olympic Village and reached the building that housed the Israeli athletes. They first encountered and killed wrestling coach Moshe "Moni" Weinberg, 31. Then they rounded up 10 other Israelis. Weightlifter Yoseph Romano tried to resist. The terrorists responded by killing him in front of the rest and then mutilating his body.

A German rescue attempt that afternoon came to naught. The terrorists then demanded two helicopters to convey them to a plane that would take them to a country in North Africa. German sharpshooters were waiting at the air force base to which the helicopters flew. Inexplicably, they missed opportunities to kill the terrorists. When they finally did start shooting, the terrorists turned their guns on the hostages, then exploded grenades in the helicopters. In the melee, at least one of the hostages — Amizur Shapira — was hit by German bullets.

Less than two months later, Black September hijacked a Lufthansa plane and demanded that the Munich terrorists be released. Mohammed Odeh (also known as Abu Daoud), the terrorist who masterminded the Munich attack, is still alive and free.

The bungled rescue effort showed that "people's lives meant nothing to [the Germans]," Eyal Shapira said bitterly. "What mattered was the games and the money involved."

After a one-day break, the Munich Olympics resumed. The German government has refused to accept any responsibility for the attack or for the failure of its rescue mission. But the Olympics Committee of Germany has promised to match donations for the $7.5 million center in Oranit. So far, the sports authority of Israel's Education Ministry has allocated $250,000 and the Oranit Local Council has provided land.

Only when this project is completed, Tzipi Shapira says, will there be a suitable living memorial for the 11: weightlifters Romano, David Berger and Zeev Freedman; wrestling referee Yoseph Gutfreund; wrestling coach Weinberg; riflery coach Kehat Shor; wrestler Eliezer Halfin; fencing coach Andre Spitzer; wrestler Mark Slavin; track-and-field coach Shapira; and weightlifting referee Yaakov Shpringer.