Four decades after the massacre by Black September, Israel's Olympians are competing passionately despite their continuing isolation on the athletic stage and the IOC's reluctance to acknowledge the darkest day in the history of the Games
This is an article from the Aug. 6, 2012 issue
IF EVER there's a time to suspend cynicism, it's at an Olympic Games opening ceremony. Last Friday night, as athletes from 204 countries paraded through London's Olympic Stadium, each wearing a gold medal smile, the world was undeniably a better, more connected place. The so-called Olympic spirit—bridging cultural divides, divorcing politics from sports, using competition to achieve greater understanding—was in full effect.
But even here, at this pageant of international amity, the real world intruded. The thousands of participating athletes proceeded alphabetically by country, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. That was good for the sake of keeping order, but it made for some awkward juxtapositions, especially in the I's.
With only Ireland as a buffer, the delegations from Iran and Iraq lined up just ahead of Israel, whose athletes some of the Iranians and Iraqis might refuse to compete against if given the chance. The Israeli team was protected by an extra security detail after a terrorist attack against Israeli tourists in Bulgaria the previous week. Nevertheless the delegation received a rousing ovation, at least in part from Jewish fans.
Such is the fate of the Israeli athlete. "Representing Israel is wonderful, but it's a whole different experience," says Andy Ram, a tennis player competing in his third Olympics. "You're a sportsman, but sometimes you're also a diplomat."
With a landmass smaller than New Hampshire's and a population less than Virginia's, Israel has a disproportionate role in geopolitics and diplomacy that's reflected at the Olympics. Israel might have won only a single gold medal in its history—windsurfer Gal Fridman's in 2004—but it receives outsized attention, caught as it so often is in the crossfire of political, cultural and social battles. Before the torch even made it to London, Israel had become an Olympic cause cél√®bre on issues ranging from the serious to the absurd.
• In a letter to IOC president Jacques Rogge in March 2011, the head of Iran's Olympic committee threatened to boycott the Games, asserting that the 2012 logo spelled out Zion and was "racist." (The IOC dismissed this as nonsense.)
• Over the past year, at various international competitions and qualifications, athletes from multiple Arab countries have forfeited rather than compete against Israelis. In a firm preemptive statement in June, the IOC declared that refusing to compete against a fellow athlete because of nationality or religion is a "serious breach" of the Olympic code of ethics.
• After the July 18 suicide attack on a tour bus in Bulgaria's Black Sea resort of Burgas killed five Israelis, Scotland Yard reportedly raised the threat assessment against the Israeli delegation in London. The Israeli government dispatched agents from its internal security service to bolster the protection of Israeli athletes.
Such precautions inevitably triggered memories of the 1972 Munich Olympics and dovetailed with still another controversy surrounding the London Games. Ankie Spitzer, widow of Israeli fencing coach Andrei Spitzer, requested an official moment of silent remembrance at the opening ceremony for her husband and the 10 other Israeli athletes and coaches killed by Palestinian terrorists in Munich four decades ago. She had made this request before every Olympics since the 1976 Summer Games; each time she was rebuffed. "[In 1976] they told us very clearly, 'There are 21 Arab delegations that will leave if we say something about the Israeli athletes,' " Spitzer says.
From her home near Tel Aviv, Spitzer tried appealing to the IOC again this year. This time the U.S., Australia and Germany endorsed recognizing the Munich tragedy, and last week both President Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney announced that they favored Spitzer's campaign. An online petition supporting the moment of silence—TELL THE INTERNATIONAL OLYMPIC COMMITTEE: 40 YEARS IS ENOUGH!—garnered more than 100,000 signatures.
In the spring, Spitzer got an audience with Rogge, a Belgian who competed at the 1972 Games in yachting. Spitzer, Dutch by birth, spoke with Rogge in Flemish. She says that at first Rogge told her that a memorial wasn't part of the protocol. Spitzer pointed out that at the Salt Lake Games in 2002 there was a moment to acknowledge the victims of 9/11. "I can only conclude you're not willing to do this because they were Israeli," Spitzer told the IOC president.
According to Spitzer, Rogge finally said, "There are now more than 40 Arab delegations. It's a difficult decision, but my hands are tied." (Rogge did not respond to SI's request for comment.)
Spitzer, irrepressible at age 66, was ready with a quick response: "Your hands are tied? No. My husband and his teammates' hands were tied. So were their feet. To the furniture. Then they came home in coffins."
THE MUNICH Games were the first Olympics held in post-Nazi Germany, and they were marketed with a theme of ease and openness, a counter to old images of Teutonic rigidity and Hitlerian fascism. They were even nicknamed the Carefree Games. The security budget was reportedly $2 million (roughly $10 million in 2012 currency). Fans without tickets could sneak into many events. Athletes who forgot their I.D.'s could hurdle the fence into the Olympic Village. Then, of course, the Games were hijacked—literally and figuratively.
As the 7,000 Olympic athletes slept in the early morning of Sept. 5, 1972, eight Palestinians representing the terrorist group Black September killed an Israeli coach and an athlete, took nine other Israelis hostage and then killed them too during a badly botched rescue attempt by German security forces. That horrific night the world saw just how perilous it could be for Israeli athletes to take part in international competition. The world witnessed another ugly display on Sept. 6. After Munich organizers declared that the Games must go on—Jim Murray, the great Los Angeles Times columnist, likened that to "having a dance at Dachau"—they held a memorial service that drew a crowd of 80,000 to the Olympic Stadium. There, 10 Arab countries refused to lower their flags to honor the murdered athletes.
Israel, established in 1948, was just 24 years old at the time, barely emerging from adolescence. Today the country is much older and much changed, but the Munich massacre still resonates. In the center of a park off Tel Aviv's Weizman Street sits a bronze statue of two figures, one physically attacking the other, titled War Between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. The space around it is ringed by stones inscribed with the names of the Israeli athletes and coaches murdered in 1972. Shortly before leaving for the London Games, the Israeli delegation gathered at the statue for a ceremony. "This wasn't just an attack on Israel; it was an attack on the Olympic movement," says Efraim Zinger, secretary general of the Olympic Committee of Israel. "Something like this cannot happen again. You know what they say about what happens when you don't know your past."
The vigil at the park was part of a unique Olympic orientation for the Israeli delegation. Like athletes from all countries, Israel's are given a pro forma pep talk, reminding them that they are representing an entire country and encouraging them to compete with honor and test their physical limits. Then they get a sobering (if familiar) primer on the differences between their experience and that of, say, LeBron James or Usain Bolt. Don't wear your Israeli warmups in public. Avoid speaking Hebrew in public. If possible, avoid buses. Don't go off on your own. When assigned a hotel room, be sure it's not near a stairwell, lest you provide an easy escape for a possible attacker.
Another legacy of Munich: that $2 million Olympic security budget has grown astronomically. London's might exceed $2 billion. And that doesn't include the special Israeli security forces that accompanied the delegation to Britain. Such extra vigilance, says Ram, is "a way of life."
The delegation has a similar what-can-you-do take on the refusal of some Arab athletes to compete against Israelis. In the 2004 Athens Games, Iranian world judo champion Arash Miresmaeili, the favorite to win gold, failed to make weight after learning he would face Israel's Ehud Vaks. He told Iran's official news agency that he refused to face Vaks because of "sympathy with the oppressed people of Palestine," and an Iranian Olympic Committee spokesman told Reuters that Miresmaeili was instructed not to fight because of a government policy of not competing "against athletes of the Zionist regime." Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at the time the mayor of Tehran and now Iran's president, said that Miresmaeili "earned eternal honor by his refusal." The judoka was awarded $125,000 by the government, the same amount he would have received had he won the gold medal.
At the Beijing Games, Iranian swimmer Mohammad Alirezaei withdrew from a 100-meter breaststroke heat, citing stomach pains. He had been slated to swim alongside an Israeli. Days later Syrian swimmer Bayan Jumah was scheduled to swim next to an Israeli in a 50-meter freestyle heat, and she withdrew without giving a reason.
In July 2011, Alirezaei refused to enter the same pool as an Israeli at the Shanghai FINA World Championships. Last October, Algerian judoka Meriem Moussa refused to compete against Israel's Shahar Levi in the knockout round of the Judo World Cup. A month later Rawan Ali, an Egyptian taekwondo champion, refused to compete when she learned her opponent was Israeli. And this past May, in a story that got considerable attention throughout the Middle East, a Tunisian 10-year-old refused to play against an Israeli opponent at the World School Chess Championship.
In some cases the Arab athletes assert that their forfeitures are to protest Israeli policy against its Palestinian population. In other cases the thinking is that competing against Israeli athletes would legitimize the state of Israel, with which the Arab athletes' governments refuse to have diplomatic relations. But the decision to forfeit may not have been the athletes'. One former Israeli athlete tells a story of facing an Iranian opponent who stepped away in forfeit, then afterward approached him and apologized. "He was actually very nice," the Israeli recalls. "He said, 'Sorry, but they'll kill me if I would have fought.'"
"You know the real shame?" says Ohad Balva, the Israeli national fencing coach, who rattles off a litany of examples of forfeiture. "It's not fair to either kid. I feel bad for both people. You train and train, and then you don't get to compete?"
In something less than a Solomonic solution the IOC and various sports governing bodies have at least mitigated controversy by separating Israel and Arab countries. Though Israel's immediate neighbors—Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria—compete in Asian qualifiers, Israel has been assigned to the European division. This keeps the peace at the events, though it can work to the detriment of Israeli athletes. (The Israeli soccer team, once it was grouped with such powers as Spain, France, Italy and Germany, has never qualified for a World Cup or European championship tournament.) But it also has the effect of defining Israel as a special case, as other.
What's more, it doesn't address the possibility of a forfeiture at these Olympics. Asked last month by The Times of London whether Algeria's policy of declining to face Israelis would persist at the 2012 Games, the head of the country's Olympic committee responded only that it was "up to the Algerian government." Iran vowed that its athletes would compete against Israelis, but last week it announced that Javad Mahjoub, a judo champion and the only Iranian athlete who could conceivably face an Israeli, was suffering from a "critical digestive system infection" that would prevent him from competing in London.
As for the IOC's position, a spokeswoman put it this way to SI: "There can be no discrimination for any reason between participants at the Olympic Games.... If an athlete/team is unable to come to the Games in a spirit of friendship and fair play, then they should stay at home."
SPEND SOME time in the Middle East, and this quickly becomes clear: The persistent conflict isn't truly between Judeo-Christians and Muslims or between Israelis and Arabs. It is a battle—in some cases a fight to the death—between moderates and extremists on both sides. Over and over you'll hear the same refrain: The vast majority of the people want peace, but it takes only one zealot on either side to undo progress.
Yet those Israeli athletes who are sometimes the object of boycotts by their counterparts in the Arab world? You'd be hard-pressed to find a more moderate cohort of young adults, some of them bracingly candid. If you want to make Israeli Olympians laugh, ask them if they've ever sat for a pregame prayer or declined to play on the Sabbath. "We're very secular," says Ram. "I don't know if people expect us to play in yarmulkes, but if so, they'd be surprised."
While most of the athletes served in the army (generally mandatory for Israelis between 18 and 21), many received a special exemption to train in their sports during their service. Politically, they hardly have a party line. "Sometimes I look at my country, and I don't see myself in it; other times I feel represented," says Gidi Kliger, a sailor who has one of Israel's best chances to win a medal in London. "Sometimes I see what's going on [with Israeli policy] and I'm embarrassed; other times I'm proud. That's democracy, no?"
Most of Israel's athletes have views about Palestinian statehood, a preemptive strike on Iran, the morality of holding on to the Occupied Territories and other hot-button topics that polarize Israelis. But a more pressing concern is the status of sports among the country's cultural priorities. Education, innovation and, yes, security are of high national importance. Faster, higher, stronger? Not so much. So it is that Israel takes far greater pride in its 10 Nobel laureates and the multitude of Israeli tech start-ups on the NASDAQ exchange—more than those of any other country save the U.S. and China—than it does in its seven Olympic medalists. Even at the Olympic Experience, an interactive display at the Israeli Olympic Center in Tel Aviv, the central story line is of an athlete who abandons her Olympic dreams to return to school. (Eventually a coach persuades her to stick with sports.) "Remember, the mentality is still one of survival," says Kliger. "Sports are seen as leisure, a luxury."
Zinger, the OCI secretary general, says wistfully, "Sports haven't yet reached the place they deserve in Israeli society."
The upshot: From the national sports training centers in Tel Aviv and Natanya to the Israel Tennis Center in Jerusalem to the windsurfing outposts on the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, funding for Israeli sports is modest. According to OCI sources, the government's Olympic budget totals roughly $25 million every four years (about $5 million per annum in the three years before the Summer Games and $10 million in the Olympic year). While there is some additional funding from various federations, Israel's per capita investment in sports pales in comparison with that of other Western countries. Denmark has a smaller population than Israel but, according to Zinger, invests six times as much in its athletes. Israeli sharpshooter Sergey Richter even took to the Internet to raise money, Kickstarter-style, to subsidize his training.
Still, Israel sent one of its largest delegations to London: 37 athletes (19 men and 18 women). Zinger has a cellphone that rings to the chimes of Abba's The Winner Takes It All. And he is unapologetically ambitious. Israel has won at least one medal at every Olympics since Barcelona, and the streak had better not be broken. "It's about time a female athlete won a medal," Zinger says. "Oh, and I'd like us to win a medal in a new sport, like taekwondo."
But aside from winning medals, at least some Israeli athletes have an additional objective. "Know what would be nice?" says Kliger. "I wish we could go and just have the normal Olympic experience. Nothing political, nothing special, no protests, no ceremonies. Just athletes competing."
Open-water swimmer Alex Meyer's quest to win a medal in memory of his late best friend at SI.com/olympics