Empty Seats? Empty Promises

Just days into the London Olympic Games and it seems the Brits have already had enough. (Always good to start with some self deprecation.)

Those of you following London 2012 will be aware of the furore surrounding the rows of empty seats that have been spotted at a number of events during the first two days of the Games. Despite assurances over the last few months that all performances would be sold out, the British media has relished the opportunity to lambaste Lord Coe – Chairman of London 2012 – and accuse him of breaking his promise that unsold and unused corporate tickets would be handed back to the public – with swathes of empty seats seen at the swimming, tennis and gymnastic events.

Hold it right there.

There may be a promise that has been broken, but the guilty party is not Lord Coe. Nor is it the ‘foreign dignitaries’ who supposedly did not turn up who are to blame (although quite how London was expecting 120,000 VIPs is a little beyond me). There is a deeper, more worrying problem at heart of the Games themselves.

A little Olympic history.

The first ‘modern’ Olympics – under the jurisdiction of the International Olympic Committee – was held in Greece in 1896. A decade later, at the behest of  IOC President Pierre de Coubertin, the Olympic Review discussed the possibility of creating an ‘Olympic Oath’ to be taken by all athletes competing in the Games. This, said de Coubertin, was to ensure ‘fairness and impartiality’ –  two attributes of great importance when contesting sporting events.

The first Oath itself was taken at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, recited by fencer Victor Boin on behalf of all the athletes involved. His Oath consisted of the statement that “…We swear we will take part in the Olympic Games in a spirit of chivalry, for the honour of our country and for the glory of sport…”

All well and good so far.

By 2012, the Olympic Oath had changed slightly. Whilst its theme is still in essence the same – impartiality and fairness for all – it now includes the assertion that “In the name of all the competitors, I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams.” 

With the exception of the small matter of doping and drugs (added for the 2000 Summer Olympics), the Oath itself appears as an immovable beacon for fairness, sportsmanship and equality for all involved. The same Oath is recited by an Olympic judge, as a representative of all Games referees and officials.

Of all aspects covered by the Oath, it is the line “… respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them” that presents the biggest problem for the current Games. For the sake of expediency, it should be understood that the Rules governing the Games are taken from the Olympic Charter, drawn up in 1908, itself including a number of terms that had been written by de Coubertin in 1898.

I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them

For the last several months, individuals and groups across the globe have lobbied for a memorial to be held in London in memory of the Israeli athletes murdered in Munich in 1972. Officially or unofficially, the resounding ‘no’ from the IOC was in direct response to the would-have-been reactions of the participating Arab and Muslim countries. Aside from the fact that this deplorable decision was based on logic that is counter intuitive at best, we must accept that the decision has been made and that the opportunity – for the moment – has passed.

This is not the place to discuss the rights and wrongs of such a memorial, rather to understand that the Olympic Committee, in their infinite wisdom, chose to ignore a plea for a peaceful memorial, supported by the White House, the NSC, the Canadian and German parliaments and other organizations worldwide – and move on.

Let’s take a look at the Olympic Charter.

The OC is the very rulebook that governs the Games and  whose own Oath makes explicit reference to “the rules which govern them.”

Without becoming entrenched in its minutiae, the Charter sets out in great detail what is expected of each of the participating countries and the standards to which it holds the competing athletes and nations.

The Charter states Seven Fundamental Principles of Olympism (yes, that really is the word), encompassing the spirit of the Games. Number Six on the list states that “Any form of discrimination, with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

Discrimination, in its loosest form, is the differential or prejudicial treatment of any individual or group based on their perception in a given category. This being the case, it would seem logical to assume that any request denied by the IOC, by virtue of it being deemed a political or racial issue, would be so denied to any other group. Irrespective of the request or point of contention, no team can appeal for special dispensation because of a dispute based around racial or nationalistic issues.

This view is further strengthened by the wording of the Sixth Principle itself, that “…discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics… is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

Thus I was left nonplussed at the IOC’s decision last week to grant the wishes of the Lebanese judo team who had requested the erection of a barrier between themselves and the Israeli judo team who had been training next to them in the London ExCel Centre. This clear violation of the Charter smacks of racial discrimination and an appalling sense of bigotry, resting entirely upon political, religious and nationalistic squabbles – none of which seems defined by Section 1, Item 2, of the Charter, affirming: “…(1) the promotion of ethics and good governance in sport… (6) to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement..” and lastly “…(4) to place sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace.”

Let us be exceptionally clear on point four. In placing sport at the the service of humanity and promoting peace, one would reasonably expect the International Olympic Committee to stand firm against any request to treat any nation or member country differently, based solely on their country of origin.

Instead, this reversion to the immoral, this rebuke to the democratic, gives hope to the millions who see the Olympic Games as just another opportunity to denounce Israel at every turn.

Just last week, Jibril Rajoub – Head of the Palestinian Olympic Committee – in correspondence to Jaques Rogge, expressed his thanks for his refusal to allow a minute’s silence to be held. In his letter, he reminded Rogge that sport can be used to build bridges.

He clearly forgot about building barriers.

Even ignoring the decision to forgo a silent memorial in London, the conclusion of the hosts to allow a barrier to be constructed seems to be in direct contradiction with the Olympic Charter.

If the IOC feel that the Lebanese athletes were entirely within their rights to request a partition, I would imagine that the Israelis are viewed as persona non grata – and should be immediately removed from the Games. Should the inverse be true and the Israeli athletes are viewed as patriotic members of the Olympic movement, I am at a loss to understand why the Lebanese team were not issued with an ultimatum: Abide by the Olympic Charter, or feel free to leave.

I am quite certain this would have been the case had an Israeli athlete made a similar demand.

Let us also not forget that Rajoub serves on the Central Committee of the Fatah movement – to whom Black September, the group responsible for the Munich massacres, belong.

We live in the real world. Our value systems only work if everybody plays by the same rules. The Olympic Charter is not a free pass for people who support murder.

That the Oath – the Olympic Promise – is held in such high regard is synonymous with the IOC’s belief that sport is a level playing field, a place to “…bring together the world’s athletes at the greatest sports festival.”

The decision to allow this hideous (dare one even say it, apartheid-esque) wall to be constructed, is tantamount to an admission of being in the pockets of the more extreme members of the Olympic Committee. That, or an unabashed lack of moral fibre when faced with a threat to their own rules and standards.

Decide for yourself which is worse.

Ultimately, there may be no answer as to why the IOC were so ready to acquiesce to the request of the Lebanese fencing team, but it is clear that the decision itself runs far deeper than a flimsy room divider.

With Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney having just left from his first tour of England, it is reassuring to hear a strong Republican voice affirming his unwavering – if somewhat over exuberant – support for Israel.

We live in the real world. Our value systems only work if everybody plays by the same rules

Back in London, however, the problem is less a question of support for Israel – rather a question of fairness and tolerance between all competing nations.

If there is no equality at the Olympic Games, exactly 40 years since sport and politics mixed with such devastating force, it is clear we are certainly not on a level playing field. Perhaps we never have been.

Forget the diving. Forget the running. Forget the throwing.

We seem to be staring at one hell of a Long Jump for peace.

The IOC would do well to take a close look at the end of the First Principle in their own Charter.

I’ll let you look it up.

About the Author
Robert Marks is the Director of Leeds Jewish Orthodox Youth, and a part-time Chazan in England, having returned from learning in Yeshivat Hakotel. In any spare time, he enjoys playing cricket and recording music.