In 2002, during the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Mitt Romney watched proudly as Americans hoisted a tattered U.S. flag salvaged from the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. And nobody accused Romney or his Olympic committee of "politicizing" the games.

I thought of Salt Lake City when I read about the campaign to commemorate the 11 Israeli athletes murdered by terrorists at the Games in Munich 40 years ago. A petition demanding a moment of silence at this summer's Olympics in London, authored by a widow of one of the slain athletes, has garnered more than 100,000 signatures. Meanwhile, Israeli officials and Jewish organizations around the world have stepped up pressure on the International Olympic Committee for such recognition at the Games, which open Friday.

But the IOC says that would be too "political." One member said a moment of silence for Israeli victims "may harm the unity of the Olympics" and "could cause some countries to boycott the games."

But many countries, including the United States, have boycotted the Olympics, which have never been as united as we like to pretend. They're athletic events, of course, but they're also deeply political.

Savage attack

Nobody understood that better than the eight terrorists who broke into a dormitory at the Munich Olympics on Sept. 5, 1972, killed two Israelis, and took nine others hostage. They demanded that Israel release 200 prisoners, but their larger goal was to ignite passion for the Palestinian cause.

And they got their wish, at least in the Arab world. After five of the terrorists died in a firefight at a German airfield, where the Israeli hostages were also killed, their bodies were sent to Libya for a huge public funeral. The following month, when the hijacking of a Lufthansa airliner led to the release of the three remaining Munich terrorists, they, too, received heroes' welcomes in Libya. Before he died in 2010, one of the terrorists told an interviewer that he would "do it all over again" if he had the chance, because the attacks had alerted the world to the Palestinian cause.

Political? You bet. So were the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which Adolf Hitler used to burnish Nazism's international image. Ditto for the 1968 Games in Mexico City, where two African American medal winners raised their fists in a Black Power salute.

The Munich Olympics were political even before the hostage drama. Several African nations threatened to boycott them to protest the participation of white-ruled Rhodesia. Over the objections of American IOC chairman Avery Brundage, who had notoriously praised Hitler's achievements back in the '30s, Rhodesia was excluded at the last minute. Brundage would return to the African issue at the lone Olympic ceremony for the murdered Israeli athletes, on the day after they died. Brundage said the Games had been "subject to two savage attacks": the Palestinian terrorist strike and the "naked political blackmail" over Rhodesia.

Racial politics arose again several days later, when two African American track champions refused to sing the national anthem at their medal ceremony; conjuring Mexico City, one of them made a quick Black Power salute. Brundage banned them from future competition, calling them a "disgrace ... to the Olympic movement."

Start to finish

What's really a disgrace is the Olympics' continuing refusal to memorialize the Munich attacks. The IOC did agree to invite children of the murdered athletes to the 1996 Games in Atlanta. But there was no official recognition of the Munich tragedy, even after a bomber killed two and injured 111 others in Atlanta.

Four years later, reports suggested that the IOC was finally ready to observe a moment of silence for the Munich victims. But Arab countries threatened a boycott, and the IOC backed down, just as it's doing now.

No matter what you think of the impasse in the Middle East, we should be able to memorialize the innocent athletes who perished at the Munich Olympics. That would surely be a political act. But so are the Olympics, from start to finish. The only question is whose politics will win the day, and why.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press).