Lifestyle & Belief

In Singapore, Olympic hypocrisy


BOSTON — No country has suffered more grievous harm within the Olympic boundaries than Israel. At the 1972 Olympics, its team was attacked in the Olympic village by Black September terrorists; Israel and the world would watch the horror unfold, as 11 Israeli Olympians were slaughtered during a failed rescue attempt at the Munich airport.

The world has paid a lot of lip service to the tragedy. And if there is any way to divine a positive legacy from the worst moment in Olympic history, it was that the world — or at least its Olympic version — was now painfully aware of the terrorist threat. Future Olympic hosts would spend a fortune to try and assure that never again would a member of its Olympic family endure such a tragedy.

While, in the almost four decades since, the Olympics has not managed to navigate the political landscape totally unscathed — a bombing by an anti-abortionist activist in Atlanta killed one woman during that city’s ’96 games — the Games have been spared a disaster approaching the dimensions of Munich.

Yet the Olympic movement continues to allow nations like Iran to add insult to injury by refusing to allow its athletes to engage Israelis in Olympic competition. The latest example occurred at the inaugural Youth Olympics in Singapore, when an Iranian did not contest a gold-medal taekwando bout against an Israeli. There is little consolation in a gold medal achieved by default and in contempt.

The Iranian action is against the Olympic credo and spirit and, if there is a need to be technical, against its formal rules as well. Iran recognizes the violation — this is not the first time an Iranian has been a no-show on the mats against an Israeli opponent — so it simply has its athlete claim a disabling injury. The injury always necessitates hospitalization so the Iranian does not face the indignity of a handshake.

An injury is always a possibility but repeated injuries when an Iranian draws an Israeli are an obvious fraud. And the Olympic movement, at its highest levels, is guilty of aiding and abetting the fraud when it takes a “don’t ask, don’t tell” view of such proceedings. It would rather maintain the pretense of one, big Olympic family than require — at the risk of suspension or expulsion — a nation to honor the words its athletes recite in the Olympic pledge at every opening ceremony.

The Junior Olympics, designed for teenage athletes, was conceived as an attempt to expand the Olympic brand and make the expensive sponsorship deals more attractive for the Game’s marketing partners. But to add a high-minded gloss to the affair, the Olympic brass has made much of the fact that it will provide an education and culture program — “a whole new dimension” seemed to be the catch-phrase — for the young athletes.

Speaking at the opening ceremonies last weekend, International Olympic Committee President Jaques Rogge called the Games “a global forum,” which would inform the young athletes — some 3,500 from 205 nations — about global issues and Olympic values. The youngsters are supposed to get helpful grounding in such troubling issues as doping and gambling as well as introductory lessons in social responsibility.

The most obvious “social” lesson to be garnered at the games so far is that you can insult Israeli athletes without peril as long as you are willing to cloak the insult in a lie. And it’s pretty much a unique situation. Just try and imagine the outrage and outcry if western athletes began forfeiting matches rather than compete against Muslim opponents.

Before it starts educating young athletes as to Olympic history and the social responsibilities of Olympic athletes, the International Olympic Committee could obviously use a remedial course in its own history and its own responsibilities. The kids in Singapore are old enough to recognize institutional hypocrisy cloaked in sanctimony.