Saturday, 4 August 2012

Olympic Reflections: From Munich to London

Guest Blogger:
Douglas Aronin, Esq.

From Munich to London: an Olympic reflection

At the opening ceremony of the London Olympics last Friday, the parade of nations was led, as it always is, by the delegation from Greece. It was the ancient Greeks, after all, who invented the Olympic games, so it seems only fair to give their modern counterparts this tiny bit of glory, generally the only Olympic-related glory they receive.
This year the contrast between the glory of ancient Greece and the decidedly inglorious modern country of the same name was particularly stark. Many observers, I suspect, as they watched the Greek athletes lead the procession into the newly constructed Olympic stadium, could not resist wondering where the Greeks found the money to fly their athletes to London. But the Olympic organizers have a sense of history, so the Greek athletes, however they got there, marched in their place of honor as usual.
Unfortunately, the Olympic sense of history is rather selective. The Olympic organizers acknowledge the Greek role both in creating the original Olympic games in ancient times and in helping to revive them by hosting the first modern Olympics in 1896.  I have no problem with that historical acknowledgment, but how can  it be squared with the International Olympic Committee's persistent refusal to honor the memories of those Olympic athletes and other participants who, a mere forty years ago, were killed in the line of Olympic duty in the terrorist attack that disrupted the 1972 Olympics in Munich?
Of course, if the IOC had had a more coherent sense of history, the 1972 games wouldn't have been held in Munich in the first place. The idea behind that selection was to showcase West Germany's post-war transition into a thriving, peaceful democracy and to atone for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which had helped confer an aura of legitimacy on Hitler's rule in its early days. But 1972 was less than three decades after the war's end, far too soon to put an Olympic stamp of approval on Germany's post-Nazi rehabilitation. Munich, moreover, had a particularly foul historical odor as the locale in which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain chose appeasement over principle, dooming the world to a horrific war and European Jewry to near extinction.
Most serious, as events unfolded, both the Olympic organizers and the West German government understood the world's instinctive repugnance at anything that might give the appearance of resurgent German militarism. The sight of uniformed German soldiers providing security for Olympic athletes understandably would have caused distress in many quarters, and thus had to be avoided. In avoiding it, however, the organizers apparently gave little thought to what should have been a paramount concern: if the soldiers of the host country could not take responsibility for protecting the Olympic athletes and other personnel, who would?
The inattention to that detail brought devastating consequences. When a Palestinian group calling itself (with presumably unintended irony) Black September took nine members of Israel's Olympic delegation hostage, killing two others in the process, it quickly became clear that neither Olympic officials nor the West German government had planned for such a contingency. A quickly improvised rescue attempt by West German police failed miserably, resulting in the deaths of all nine of the remaining hostages, plus five of the eight terrorists and a West German policeman.
Over the years, frequent attempts have been made to persuade the IOC to create an appropriate vehicle for honoring the memory of the murdered Israeli Olympians. Each such overture has been met with, to put it mildly, a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Because this year's Olympics, being held in London for the third time in modern Olympic history, marks the fortieth anniversary of the Munich Olympic massacre, the attempts to persuade the IOC to memorialize the slain Olympians appropriately took on both a higher profile and a greater urgency than in the past.  Unfortunately, however, they did not meet with any greater success.
Although they would have settled for less, what those pushing for an appropriate memorialization of the murdered Olympians ideally wanted was an opening ceremony that included a moment of silence in their memory.  While the IOC did not, to my knowledge, give any explanation for its continued refusal, the implication was that such a gesture would be in some sense inconsistent with the  mood of the ceremony.  After watching a recorded version of the opening ceremony -- the American broadcast of the ceremony took place on Friday night, so I had it recorded -- I could almost understand the hesitation.  Finding an appropriate point for a commemoration of the slain Olympians might have been difficult. 
But then I learned to my shock that the IOC had agreed to permit as part of the opening ceremony, what USA Today characterized as " a video tribute to the 52 people who were killed in the suicide bombings in the London transit system the day after the city won the Games in 2005."  Reading about that video tribute shocked me for two reason.  The first reason was that I couldn't understand how the IOC could justify including that video tribute while still refusing to honor the memories of the Israeli Olympians murdered in Munich.  The second was that I could not figure out how I had managed to overlook that tribute when I watched the recording of the opening ceremony. 
The second puzzle was solved when I learned that NBC had not included that video tribute in the American broadcast, instead cutting to a background piece.  Whether the network's decision was prompted by a fear of offending part of its audience, a desire to protect the reputation of the Olympics (in which the network has invested a great deal of money) or some other consideration is still unclear.  As to the first puzzle -- how the IOC members can justify, even to themselves, including that tribute to the victims of terrorist violence in London while refusing to include any mention of the Olympian victims of terrorist violence in Munich -- I only wish the continued refusal had been more surprising than it was.
I doubt that most of us were shocked by the IOC's logically incompatible decisions, because, truth to tell, we're used to it.  There is no direct organizational or historical connection between the United Nations, which arose out of the ashes of World War II, and the IOC, which preceded it by half a century.  But the memberships of the two are largely the same, as are many of the customs and habits of mind.  And one of the most ingrained customs of today's multilateral diplomacy can best be summed up (with apologies to George Orwell) as follows:  All countries are equal, but one is less equal than the others.
That less equal country, of course, is Israel, the country whose Olympians were murdered in Munich.  The surviving family members of the Munich victims were no doubt being sincere in telling the current IOC president that in seeking to honor the memories of their loved ones, they were not intending to make a political statement, but they were also being naive.  In the upside down world of international organizations, there is no such thing as a non-political statement about Israel.  Nothing that involves Israel can be non-controversial because, to a significant core of member countries, Israel's very existence is controversial.  Can anyone really doubt that, if the murdered Olympians had been citizens of any other country, the problem of how best to honor their memories would have been resolved long ago?
Just before the London Olympics opened, David Brooks, the most consistently thoughtful of the New York Times opinion columnists, pondered ("The Olympic Contradiction", July 26, 2012) what he sees as the inherent contradiction that is at the heart of the Olympic movement.  " The Olympics", he wrote, "are a peaceful celebration of our warlike nature."  The opening ceremony, in Brooks's view, is  "a lavish celebration of the cooperative virtues," while in the competitions that follow,  "the Olympics turn into a celebration of the competitive virtues."
Brooks has a point, it seems to me.  Organized sports generally, and the Olympics in particular, are about channeling our natural competitive instinct away from war and toward less deadly pursuits.  According to the Olympic Charter, the goal of the Olympic movement "is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the
preservation of human dignity." Brooks puts it more succinctly:  "[T]he Olympic Games appeal both to our desire for fellowship and our desire for status, to the dreams of community and also supremacy."
But if the fundamental purpose of the Olympics is to promote peace through sport, then there can be no greater desecration of the Olympic ideal than to deliberately bring lethal violence into the Olympic Village, which is precisely what the Munich terrorists did.  The Munich massacre was an attack not just on Israel but on the Olympic movement itself.  That the IOC doesn't it see it that way demonstrates yet again how easy it is for fallible human beings to use pretensions of idealism to prettify naked self-interest. 
However hard we try, there's no way to insulate the Olympics completely from the diplomatic realities of the day.  (Contrary to myth, even the ancient Greeks were not always successful in keeping the two separate.)  But wherever you choose to draw that line, the 1972 murder of eleven Israeli Olympians is unambiguously on the wrong side of it.
"If the opening ceremony mimics peace," Brooks writes, "the competitions mimic warfare." Unfortunately, thanks to the IOC's  refusal to honor the memories of the Olympians who died in Munich, the mimicry of war is more convincing than the mimicry of peace.

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