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.

Paralympic athletes train 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Paralympic athletes train 370
(photo credit: 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 face.
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 attention.
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 winners’ podium.
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 neighboring states.
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 spots.
“Anyone for tennis?” doesn’t translate into Hebrew, but Israeli players are household names in any home that takes the game seriously.
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, too.
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.”
Reading British 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 toll.
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.
Here’s hoping the once quintessentially British sense of fair play is the overall Olympic winner.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.