My Word: Olympic spirit and ghosts
Even before the starters’ whistle, it seems likely that the upcoming Olympic Games, like their predecessors, will have a political angle.
Israeli athletes train for Paralympic Games Photo: REUTERS
There is something ironic about international sports: The more they unite
spectators around the global village, all following a major event, the less hope
I have for world peace. You only have to watch the average soccer match to
realize that tribal warfare will always survive in the games people play. The
Euro 12 soccer championship just completed was not about a united Europe; it was
about national teams. Football is a form of war.
Even a friendly match.
It’s not about winning or losing a game, but gaining status and losing
While the roar of a crowd at the sight of a goal, basket or
particularly striking athletic achievement sounds the same anywhere – is this
what is meant by the universal language of sport? – the way we follow sporting
events depends on where we live.
In Israel, for example, drinking beer is
not an essential part of the experience – unlike chewing sunflower seeds and
sharing a bowl of chilled chunks of watermelon.
We also have a – very
Jewish – way of choosing who we want to win in competitions in which there is no
Israeli presence. As a friend described it recently, as he sat transfixed to TV
coverage of the Euro cup: “We can’t stand it when Germany wins; we can’t forgive
Spain for the Inquisition; supporting Britain is going in the face of history;
France had the Dreyfus Affair...”
Ultimately, many Israelis sought
consolation in Italian soccer star Mario Balotelli, who was raised by a Jewish
foster mother and led his country to the finals (thus becoming a Jewish sports
hero by adoption even though his team lost to Spain).
Israeli guys have
their own way of spitting out sunflower shells and spouting colorful curses at
the same time. The Hebrew language sounds particularly unholy when it is used to
describe the referee (and his mother) in words that appear in the Bible, but
only in a different configuration.
Oh, and there’s one more thing:
Whenever we collectively watch events like the Olympics, we keep more than half
an eye open for the less sporting aspect: security.
Ever since the 1972
Olympics, Israelis breathe a sigh of relief when their players and athletes
return home safely. Israel can never forget “The Eleven” – the country’s top
sportsmen and coaches killed by Palestinian terrorists in Munich. And all we are
asking is that the world takes one minute out of the opening ceremony in London
to remember them too.
The Olympics can so easily be hijacked as part of
some kind of political game. That’s probably why China’s occupation of Tibet and
appalling record on human rights did not prevent it from being chosen to host
the last games while Israel’s perceived transgressions (though not the ongoing
missile fire from which it suffers) receive greater media
Ha’olympiada, as we call the event in this small but
competitive state, are not just about sports. If they were, countries wouldn’t
compete to host the games – a security and financial nightmare, as the average
Brit is now frighteningly aware.
On 7/7, the UK marked the seventh
anniversary of the London bombings that cost more than 50 people their lives,
another chilling reminder that not everybody plays by the same rules. It was the
sort of attack which makes it clear that in the Islamic-led global war we are
all potential innocent victims.
YOU CAN repeat the mantra “ha’ikar
lehishtatef,” “the main thing is to participate,” from here to the finishing
line, but which competitor doesn’t want to bring home a medal – preferably a
gold one – after years of grueling training? It makes me feel sorry for members
of the Iranian team. Openly flouting the Olympic spirit, Iran requires its
representatives to suffer a proverbial diplomatic headache whenever they have to
compete against Israelis. The Iranian regime does not want to risk losing to
“the Zionist entity” and prefers to be bad sports and bad losers than actually
take part in an event where the blue-and-white flag might be raised above the
Even before the starters’ whistle, it seems likely that
the upcoming Olympic Games, like their predecessors, will have a political
angle. And unless there is some dramatic change in circumstances before the end
of the month, we can expect the front pages of newspapers around the world to
carry images illustrating the sporting spirit on the one side and the civil war
in Syria and elsewhere on the other. In Israel, it sometimes seems like
complaining is a national sport. But whatever Israeli ministers might think of
each other – no secret given our free press and their obvious attraction to free
publicity – it is child’s play compared to what’s going on in most of our
Thanks to homegrown talents and the input of
immigrants (particularly those from the former Soviet Union), the country has
come a long way over the years – in particular riding a wave of success with
windsurfing and water sports and frequently wrestling for the top judo
“Anyone for tennis?” doesn’t translate into Hebrew, but Israeli
players are household names in any home that takes the game
And it might not be an Olympic sport (yet), but grandmaster
Boris Gelfand last month also proved that Israel can wipe the board in chess,
We also have a superb team participating in the Paralympics – many
of them victims of war and terrorism who refuse to let their injuries, however
severe, keep them down.
Given Israel’s growing achievements, one wonders
what might have been if an entire cadre of sportsmen and coaches hadn’t been
slain 40 years ago.
I have written several times in the past of the
impact the massacre had on my own life – setting me on a path that was to bring
me from the British capital to Jerusalem. I still consider it a personal victory
in the war against terrorism.
In one of her biggest hits, Israeli
songstress Chava Alberstein sings: “In London, they have more movies; in London,
they have good music; in London, the television is great; in London, the people
are polite. Thus, the despair is more comfortable.”
papers and journals, I’m no longer sure that the last line is true any more –
growing Muslim fundamentalism, economic distress and violence are taking their
Unfortunately, if you were to rely on BBC coverage of Israel to get
a picture of what goes on here, you might think that the British national sport
is Israel bashing. Of course, it’s hard here, also, to get an accurate picture
of what is happening in my former homeland.
No wonder British ambassador
to Israel Matthew Gould at a recent press conference in Tel Aviv made a point of
stressing that stories that is not safe to defend Israel in British universities
are “wildly exaggerated.”
Not far from where he spoke, a giant backgammon
board was being put to use on the beach as part of a festival at different sites
along the country’s Mediterranean coast. As a former Londoner who came out of
the cold, I’m often reminded you can’t beat the weather and way of life
Here’s hoping the once quintessentially British sense of fair play
is the overall Olympic winner.
The writer is editor of The International