Israel’s Olympic success

On the face of it, London 2012 was a bad Olympic Games for Israel. Israeli athletes left with no medals at all, not even a lonely Bronze. In Israel, the media is pondering the failures of Team Israel and Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat has promised to set up a commission to try and improve for the future.

But these were also a bad Olympics for Israel’s enemies — the boycotters, delegitimizers, divesters and one-staters. They probably had high hopes. London is known as a “hub of delegitimization,” a stronghold of the anti-Israel movement. The Olympics are one of the world’s biggest international cultural events. They must surely have seen it as a golden opportunity.

They didn’t have a good start. In May 2011, Iran threatened to boycott the Olympics over the logo, which — if you squint, turn down the lights and totally rearrange it — sort of looked a bit like the word ZION. Everybody laughed at them. The boycott threat was never mentioned again.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that this year there would be formal sanctions against any athlete who refused to compete against another for political reasons. This led to the surprise announcement from Iran’s Olympic Committee that it would compete against Israelis, changing its longstanding policy. By what must be a bizarre coincidence, judoka Javad Mahjoob came down with a stomach bug a few hours later. He was the only Iranian athlete who could conceivably have competed against an Israeli, making Iran’s early statement conveniently meaningless.

The Lebanese judo team asked for a screen to be put up between them and the Israeli team during training, something that’s technically allowed under the rules (to stop teams from stealing each others’ moves), but that the Israeli team said was politically motivated. A Tunisian swimmer briefly became famous for refusing to swim against an Israeli, until it turned out that the whole thing was made up. He was actually disqualified for a technical infringement after he got in the water.

That’s the full extent of the Israel boycott inside the framework of the Games. What about outside?

Well, in July, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — probably worried that he hadn’t been in the headlines for a few weeks — announced he would travel to London for the Olympics opening ceremony. He didn’t.

Before the games, a Liberal Democrat MP told Parliament he would be organizing “peaceful demonstrations” at events with Israeli athletes to protest Israel’s policies. He didn’t.

In fact, there were no protests against Israel at the Olympics — at all. No disruptions, no chanting, no booing, no demonstrations, no flyers. With years to prepare and the eyes of the world on them, the anti-Israel mob didn’t turn up. For the full measure of their failure, their main campaign seemed to be to try and get Israel banned from the Olympics — in 2016!

Since 1972, the Olympics have become an important symbolic event for Israel. Eleven Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists during the 1972 Munich Olympics, but they have never been formally commemorated inside the Olympic framework.

This year, on the 40th anniversary of the massacre, Jewish and Israeli groups called for some memorial to the athletes to be part of the Olympic opening ceremony or another meaningful place within the framework of the official Olympic program. The IOC refused this request, as it has done at every Olympics since the massacre. This time, nobody was prepared to accept that “no” as a final answer. Britain’s Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks wrote a prayer for the Munich 11, to be recited in synagogues around the world. An international campaign for “Just One Minute” of silence became world-famous and was endorsed by Barack Obama and the UK’s opposition Labour party, as well as other world leaders.

Under this pressure, the IOC held its own minute’s silence at a private ceremony, which was widely criticized as inadequate. The Jewish Committee for the London Games (the British Jewish community’s Olympics committee) and the Israeli Embassy organized a memorial event in London’s Guildhall, which was attended by Prime Minister David Cameron, the leaders of all the main UK parties, Limor Livnat, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, and IOC President Jacques Rogge himself. Barack Obama and Prince Charles sent messages of support. The event can’t have been comfortable for Dr. Rogge, who was attacked by the Munich widows and Jewish community leaders for not supporting a memorial inside the formal Olympic framework.

This ceremony, which was covered by international media, was probably the highest-level Olympic memorial event since the Munich massacre itself. Although there wasn’t a minute’s silence in the Olympic opening ceremony, the Just One Minute campaign helped ensure that the memories of the Munich 11 were a real part of the London Olympics. The intervention of Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian Olympic official who called a minute’s silence “racism,” exposed opponents of the memorial as irrational extremists.

Even relatively small issues turned to Israel’s advantage. Back in April, after the Olympic website launched, the country profile for Palestine (an IOC member) listed East Jerusalem as its capital, while Israel wasn’t given a capital at all. The website removed ALL capitals from every country in the world to avoid the controversy.

A few months later, people noticed that the BBC’s Olympics pages had the same information as the old Olympic site, giving Israel no capital and East Jerusalem to Palestine. Within a day the BBC changed the pages to reflect their usual policy, calling Jerusalem Israel’s “seat of government.” The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office was able to turn this into a rallying cry to push back at this decades-old policy, founding a Facebook group called “Jerusalem is the Capital of Israel,” which now has 25,000 members. This campaign even scored an early victory when HonestReporting succeeded in forcing the Guardian to stop pretending that Tel Aviv was Israel’s capital.

The London Olympics will not be remembered in Israel for sporting success. However, in the bigger diplomatic and political picture, Israel-haters and boycotters were shown up as weak, extreme, marginal and ineffective. Overall, that makes London 2012 a good Games for Israel and its supporters worldwide.


About the Author
Arieh Kovler is a writer and a public affairs, PR and communications expert. Before his aliya he was the Head of Policy and Research for Britain's Jewish Leadership Council and director of the Fair Play Campaign, the UK's coordination body against anti-Zionist activity.