(RNS) I suffer from a severe case of “Olympicitis,” a disease causing an incurable abhorrence of the international athletic extravaganzas that supposedly increase world peace and understanding.
Critics charge the Olympics over-glorify the winning of medals and are filled with jingoistic sounds and sights of national anthems and flags. They also argue that, at times, the games have been saturated with politics and public displays of racism and anti-Semitism.
With forced evictions of local landowners (akin to the 2008 Beijing games) and a cost of $50 billion, next February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, could turn ugly if Russia enforces the anti-gay legislation the Duma passed by the narrow vote of 436-0. The law calls for arresting, fining and detaining gay and pro-gay people.
Adding to my illness was the recent election of Thomas Bach of Germany as president of the International Olympic Committee. Before his new gig, Bach was the chair of Ghorfa, the Arab-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry, an advocacy group that supports an economic boycott of Israel. He’s since resigned.
The source of my “Olympicitis” goes back to 1912, when American Jim Thorpe, a Native American by ancestry, won the Olympic pentathlon and decathlon in Stockholm. However, a year later the IOC stripped Thorpe of his medals because he had earlier played baseball as a professional. After a 70-year campaign that noted irregularities in Olympic rules and anti-Indian bigotry, the IOC posthumously restored Thorpe’s medals in 1982. But even then, he was cited only as a “co-champion” with the two Scandinavians he defeated.
In the run-up to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Avery Brundage, then-head of the U.S. Olympic Committee and later the IOC between 1952 and 1972, successfully lobbied against an American boycott of the games hosted by Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler wanted to prove German athletes were superior to all others, especially blacks and Jews. But to Hitler’s embarrassment, a group of African-Americans won a slew of medals, including Jesse Owens’ four golds.
Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, both American Jews, were also members of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team, but Brundage used his influence to remove them from the 400-meter relay race in Berlin. Glickman, who later became a radio/TV sportscaster, claimed Brundage’s anti-Semitism was the key factor in preventing the two Jews from competition.
In 1998, William J. Hybl, then-president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said: ”I was a prosecutor. I’m used to looking at evidence. The evidence (of anti-Semitism) was there.” That year, Hybl presented Glickman a plaque in place of the gold medal he “most likely would have won” in Berlin. Stoller died in 1983.
At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos placed first and third, respectively, in the 200-meter race. As “The Star-Spangled Banner” played during the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos raised clenched fists to protest racism in the United States. The Brundage-led IOC suspended the two sprinters from the games and expelled them from the Olympic Village.
During the 1972 Olympics, eight Arab terrorists broke into the quarters of the Israeli team and killed two athletes who resisted them. For the next 24 hours, the terrorists held nine Israelis hostage. Despite negotiations, all the hostages, five of the terrorists and a German police officer were killed during a shootout.
The current IOC president, Bach, supported the IOC’s refusal — under pressure from some Arab states — to hold a minute of silence during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London to mark the 40th anniversary of the murder of Israeli athletes in Munich.
Because of the massacre, many people wanted the Munich Games immediately canceled. But Brundage refused. New York Times columnist Red Smith ripped into the IOC chief: “This time … surely, some thought, they would cover the sandbox and put the blocks aside. But, no. ‘The Games must go on,’ said Avery Brundage, and 80,000 listeners burst into applause. The occasion was yesterday’s memorial service for 11 members of Israel’s Olympic delegation murdered by Palestinian terrorists. It was more like a pep rally.”
In 1980, because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, more than 60 nations led by the U.S. refused to participate in the Moscow Olympics; four years later, the Russian Soviets and 13 other nations boycotted the Los Angeles Games.
And what will happen in Sochi? Alas, there seems to be no end to my “Olympicitis.”
(Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published “Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations.”)
KRE/MG END RUDIN