I love the Olympics, but not for the reasons you might think.
It can be truly inspiring to watch the best athletes in the world – and the best Canada has to offer – compete against one another at the highest levels of sport.
And I’m proud when Canadians do well. I was elated when sprinter Ben Johnson won gold for Canada in Seoul 1988 (and disappointed when he was stripped of his medal for steroid use). I was perhaps even more thrilled when Donovan Bailey did it again – cleanly, one assumes – in Atlanta in 1996.
But rooting for Canada isn’t why I’m fond of the Games.
I love the Olympics because, ultimately, I couldn’t care less about them.
They’re over-hyped, treacly, meaningless fluff.
Every other year, in the weeks leading up to the Winter and Summer Games – and once they’re finally up and running after months of relentless promotion – I can safely ignore most of the Olympics ephemera crowding the pages of my favourite news websites and my already-skimpy, ad-deprived morning papers.
It’s a real time-saver.
This year, unfortunately, has been a bit different.
That’s because I’ve felt compelled to read as much as I can about the ultimately unsuccessful international effort to hold a minute of silence at the London Games’ opening ceremonies in honour of 11 Israeli Olympians who were murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Games.
The initiative to honour the slain Israelis started with their families, who have been trying to get the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to formally memorialize them at the opening ceremonies since the Montreal Games in 1976.
While it’s not clear why the effort has gained more traction now than in the past – one might reasonably ask “Why London?” or “What’s the significance of 40 years, as opposed to, say, 36 years, or double chai?” – the families’ efforts have been backed by U.S. President Barack Obama, the U.S. Senate, the German Bundestag, the Canadian and Australian parliaments, about 50 British MPs, the Israeli government and countless Jewish groups around the world.
Despite all of the support – and in spite of a last-minute, in-person plea by two of the widows of the Munich 11, who presented a petition with 100,000 signatures to IOC president Jacques Rogge – the Olympic governing body wouldn’t grant the request.
In fact, Rogge, who sailed for Belgium at the 1968, 1972 and 1976 Games, held his own, seemingly impromptu minute of silence in the athletes village on July 23, but the gesture satisfied no one. It appeared to have been done to shut people up, not out of any great conviction.
In the absence of a genuine, appropriate, IOC-sanctioned memorial, public and private ceremonies and protests have been held all over the world, including by Israeli Sports Minister Limor Livnat, who stood in silence in the Olympic Stadium as Rogge addressed the opening ceremonies, as well as by 20,000 people at various venues around London as part of the British Zionist Federation’s “Minute for Munich” initiative.
Here in North America, both CTV’s veteran Olympics host Brian Williams and NBC’s respected sportscaster Bob Costas criticized the IOC on air during the opening ceremonies for never having honoured the Munich 11.
The IOC didn’t honour the Israelis ostensibly because it didn’t want to make a political statement at the opening ceremonies.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, offered an eloquent rejoinder to that argument: “It is, in fact, just the opposite. It is an act of common human decency, not politics, to take a moment to commemorate those who died as Olympic athletes.”
Or as Williams noted on CTV, “Remember, they died as Olympians.”
But – putting aside the moment of silence in Vancouver in 2010 for Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died in a controversial pre-Games training accident that was blamed on poor course design – there is a precedent for “politics” finding their way into the opening ceremonies.
At the Winter Games in Salt Lake City in 2002, an American flag that had flown at the World Trade Center was carried into the opening ceremonies, followed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing the Star-Spangled Banner as the crowd looked on.
The moment may have been a bit garish, but at the time, very few people, if anyone, accused a deeply wounded America of playing politics after 9-11.
Of course, such as act is intrinsically political, but given what had happened a mere five months earlier, it was understandable. And unlike the Munich Massacre, 9-11 wasn’t directly related to the Olympics.
But even before Sept. 11, could anyone truly make the claim that the Olympics aren’t inherently political, especially after the Nazi games of 1936, the lack of participation by Germany and Japan at the 1948 Games in London, the western boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980, and the tit-for-tat Eastern Bloc retaliation in Los Angeles in 1984?
Underscoring the political nature of the Olympics and the IOC’s denial of a moment of silence was the Palestinians’ reaction to it. The head of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, Jibril Rajoub, wrote to Rogge to praise his decision, saying, “Sports are a bridge for love, communication and the spreading of peace between nations and should not be used for divisiveness and the spread of racism.”
That statement would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
Yet despite the moral value of the cause, and with due respect to the dead and their families, it merits asking whether it’s been worth it to pressure the IOC for a minute of silence.
All of the voices calling for such a gesture have been doing so on the assumption that the IOC is a respected global organization and that its recognition of the slain Israelis at the Games would confer honour on them.
But the IOC is a morally, and perhaps actually, corrupt organization. The argument that it’s a global, supra-national organization representing the purity of sport and transcending ethnic differences and national divisions rings hollow. In 2012, whatever it once was, the IOC, and by extension the Olympic movement itself, is about making money. Athletics have become a side pursuit.
Why look to such an organization for validation?
Urging the IOC to honour the Munich 11 is a bit like seeking solace from a mafia don after one of his renegade sons has just killed a member of your family.
A better idea would be to publicly protest the IOC’s hypocrisy with a gesture like the Black Power protests in Mexico City in 1968. Such an act would be even more appropriate than the one by U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, because the Israelis would be recalling and protesting something that had actually occurred at the Olympics itself.
Here’s a suggestion – courtesy of a commenter on Abraham Foxman’s Huffington Post article on the controversy – for what members of the Israeli team can do at the next Olympic Games to make a statement that would also honour their fallen countrymen.
“I would not personally have raised the [Munich minute of silence] issue,” the commenter says, “but given that the issue was raised, the IOC’s denial [of a minute of silence], because it wants to show only the sunny side of life, is obnoxious. I would love for the Israeli team to stop at centre field and hold up the procession while it observes a minute of silence. Not because it is necessary, but to flip the IOC the bird.”
Here’s hoping we see it in action at the Sochi Winter Games in 2014 or, even better, at the Summer Games in Rio in 2016.