Five political comments on London Olympics' opening ceremony
The 2012 opening ceremony was full of ironies: somber commemorations, but only for the British, female athletes from Islamist countries such as Saudi Arabia and national delegations for stateless people.
LONDON - 1. As the national delegations of each country entered the Olympic stadium, television viewers were offered a short glimpse, about a second and a half, of the smiling face of a head of state or some other senior leader from that nation, watching from the stands. When the Israeli delegation marched in, we saw the Israeli leader – an elderly, tailored and venerable figure. No, it wasn't President Shimon Peres, who had been planning to attend but two and a half weeks ago announced he was cancelling because the ceremony clashed with Shabbat. The Israeli VIP was Alex Giladi, Israeli and global television tycoon, and more importantly here, senior member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the man in charge of the deals that bring hundreds of millions into the Olympic coffers. Which is ironic, because Giladi was one of the most steadfast opponents of holding a moment of remembrance at the opening ceremony for the eleven Israeli athletes who were murdered by terrorists at the 1972 Munich Games.
2. Giladi and other IOC members have refused for decades to commemorate the Munich Eleven at the opening ceremony for two main reasons: politics should not mix with the Olympics and that ceremony is a place to celebrate life rather than death. That reason seemed especially hollow as the London 2012 opening ceremony included not one moment of memory for the dead, but two. The ceremony, which was steeped in British history, had a minute's silence for the dead in two World Wars as well as a special performance in honor of the 52 civilians murdered in the 7/7/2005 terror attack on London's public transport, which took place less than 24 hours after it was announced that London would host the Olympics. As Ankie Spitzer, widow of fencing coach Andre Spitzer said this week: "our husbands just came from the wrong country and were of the wrong faith."
3. The entry of the delegations was full of political and diplomatic hints. It was particularly noticeable in the names of the delegations. For example, Taiwan was called "Chinese Taipei," so as not to anger the Chinese regime which lays claim to it neighboring island. Macedonia had the clunky title of "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," to assuage Greece. And thanks to international politics, the Palestinians are the only nation, among hundreds clamoring for independence and self-recognition that are privileged to field an Olympic team before having a state. On the other hand, the marathon-runner Guor Marial, is forced to compete as an "independent athlete under the Olympic flag," despite his country of birth already achieving independence, all due to ridiculous Olympic bureaucracy.
4. The makeup of the delegations also reflected internal political and social conflicts, especially those from Muslim countries. This is the first Olympics where all the countries participating have also sent female athletes. Delegations from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei, all include sportswomen for the first time. The women from these countries and others all marched through the stadium wrapped from head-to-foot. But athletes from Muslim nations where the secular middle-class is struggling against Islamist parties in power, such as Egypt and Tunisia, walked proudly with uncovered heads. The contrast was particularly stark when the Turkish delegation walked in, its women holding their bare heads up high – while Islamist Prime Minister Reccep Tayyep Erdogan looked on, standing by his wife who wore a large white head-covering.
5. And now this question: which major international event will overshadow the Olympics? In ancient Greece, the city states of the Aegean peninsula would lay down their arms and cease warring for the duration of the Olympic Games. But in the modern era, external conflict has often taken the attention away. In 1956, the murderous Soviet suppression of the democratic uprising in Hungary caused violent clashes between the delegations at the Melbourne Games, including the famous "blood in the water" water-polo game between Hungary and the Soviet Union. In 1980, 65 nations, including the United States and Israel boycotted the Moscow games following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and four years ago during the Beijing Olympics, Russia chose to attack and punish Georgia, which added particular poignancy to judo and wrestling matches between athletes from both generations. No country has (yet) boycotted the London Olympics, but the deepening civil war in Syria and developments around Iran and the Persian Gulf could affect the participation of both nations, though the Iranians surprisingly announced last week that they would not boycott direct competitions against Israeli athletes.