A sporting chance

Here's hoping this year's games break records only of the sporting kind.

udi gal 224 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
udi gal 224 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
The Olympics are not just fun and games. In July 1972, as my class of 11-year-olds was finishing elementary school in London (or primary school, as we called it), we were asked to write an essay on where we would be in 10 years' time. A fanatic Francophile at the time, thanks to annual summer vacations in France, I envisaged a future in which I would have finished studying at the Sorbonne and would be teaching English in Paris. My predictions didn't even come close. As it turned out, in 1982 I finished serving in the IDF and started studying Chinese and international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. What blew my plans so off course? The Munich Olympics. The ink of the teacher's tick in the margin of my essay had barely dried before my whole outlook on life had changed. When the 11 Israeli athletes were slain at the games in Germany, I lost my childhood innocence. Actually, first I fell in love. A keen competitive swimmer, I adored Mark Spitz, and cut out his picture from the paper with that typical preteen infatuation as he won gold medal after gold medal - all seven of them. Spitz was not the only reason I was following the Olympic swimming events. A member of my own swimming club was participating and I was glued to the TV coverage when news of the Israeli hostage situation broke. Was my teammate safe? Yes, explained my mum, it was only Israelis who were being held hostage. And then she added, in an aside that changed my life, that Spitz had been whisked away from the Olympic Village and wasn't in any danger either. Why? Because he's Jewish. But he's not Israeli? No, but he's Jewish, so he might be a target, too. That was all it took. For the first time I truly understood that Israel wasn't just a place name in my prayer book and the fate of the Jews and Israelis were intertwined. That exchange and the images of the bodies of the slain athletes going back home in coffins set me on a path that was to bring me to Israel. It is very poor consolation that the terror outrage - at the event that was meant to confirm Munich's place in the new, happier post-World War II era - led to at least one more family making aliya, but I know it would annoy the hell out of our enemies, sore losers at the worst of times. The world watched the attack and botched rescue but after a one-day hiatus the "the games must go on" philosophy won. It was, perhaps, the birth of terrorism as a media event. Nobody wanted dead Jews ruining the fun. Of course I have watched the Olympics in subsequent years, but it has always been with one eye on security. ISRAEL HAS never exactly excelled at the Olympics. One wonders what would have happened if an entire cadre of sportsmen hadn't been slain at Munich. Unfortunately, Jews often look at past events in Germany and wonder: What if? The very rarity of Israel's Olympic successes, on the other hand, makes every one count. The country comes together to celebrate. When judoka Yael Arad won Israel's first medal, a silver at Barcelona in 1992, she became an instant local icon. Oren Smadja, who won a bronze in the same sport at the same games, also become a hero. Arik Ze'evi's bronze in judo in Athens in 2004 cemented the popularity of the sport with a younger generation of Israelis. I'm sure my son will be following the judo at the Beijing games with all the enthusiasm and hero-worship a six-year-old yellow belt can show. Gal Fridman's gold medal in sailing at Athens had Israel riding a wave of national pride. Israel's hopes this year are still pinned on water-based events. Kayaker Michael Kolganov will be carrying the flag at the opening ceremony, although the country is looking more to yachters Udi Gal and Gidi Kliger to hopefully provide more medals. Tennis champs Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich and Shahar Pe'er and Tzipi Obziler are expected to score points where it counts. And it's not too long a shot to hope the shooting team is on target. As for me, I'll be keeping half an eye on American swimmer Dara Torres. Any woman who can compete in the Olympics at the age of 41 - particularly the mother of a two-year-old - is both a winner and a good sport in my opinion and has definitely earned her place in the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Of course, mainly I'll be hoping the games aren't marred by drugs and scandals - or that specter of global terror that has hung over every major sporting event since 1972, courtesy of (Nobel Peace Prize-winner) Yasser Arafat. The Palestinians' successes in terror a la Munich have spawned other attacks, each competing for deadly attention. The world watched as Black September in 1972 turned into September 11, 2001. And sadly it still doesn't seem to have figured out that giving Arafat the legitimacy it did (remember his gun-and-olive-branch appearance at the UN in '74?) encouraged the "struggle against the Zionist entity" to turn into global jihad, in which nowhere is safe. In this light, the international outcry over the decision to hold the games in Beijing seems rather two-faced. China has, it is true, failed to clean up its act as promised on either human rights or pollution. Although athletes could hardly breathe easy in Athens and human rights are sadly violated all over the world - even in the US, Britain and my former love, France. France, indeed, has some draconian infringements of basic rights: the ban on Muslim schoolgirls wearing head coverings within the school gates is a debatable way of stopping the spread of radical Islam. My former home, England, too, is struggling to come to terms with the new threats. As the Post reported on July 28, nearly a third of British Muslim students polled in a new report said that killing in the name of religion could be justified. The report by the London-based Center for Social Cohesion, entitled "Islam on Campus: A Survey of UK Student Opinion," showed that 32 percent of Muslim students said killing in the name of religion could be justified, while 60% of active members of on-campus Islamic societies held that opinion. Only 2% of non-Muslims polled felt the same way. As a result, I am no longer surprised that my Jerusalem neighborhood is becoming home to increasing numbers of new immigrants arriving from France and Britain. The two countries fought over which country was more deserving to host the 2012 Olympics - Britain won the most challenging security event in the global jihad village. But for the Jewish people there is only one home: Israel. As I watch the Olympics and hope for Israeli successes, I'll spare a thought for the victims of the Munich massacre, cut down before they had the chance to see the state grow and witness its successes (and failures). And always remember, it might not be nearly so grand, but the four-yearly sporting event which saw Mark Spitz's international debut was the "Jewish Olympics," the 1965 Maccabiah. Let the games begin. May sporting spirit triumph.