As the national teams marched into the Olympic Stadium in Friday's opening ceremony, television cameras cut to the VIP box in the stands and viewers were treated for a moment to the sight of a senior figure from each nation. In Israel's case, we didn't get to see the government's representative, Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat, but rather the inscrutable face of veteran International Olympic Committee member Alex Gilady.
Few Israelis have ever reached high-level positions on major international bodies and Gilady's prominence on the IOC is rare. He is not just another member of a 105-member body, but has for decades been in overall charge of negotiating the television rights for the greatest sporting event in the world, and executing the complex operation of filming and broadcasting every contest, no matter how obscure the sport, amounting to 5,500 hours of television in these Games. He also wields considerable power due to his position as senior vice-president of NBC Sports, the broadcaster of Olympic sports in the United States. It seems almost superfluous to mention that he was one of the founders of the sports department on Israel Television and today is president of Channel Two's license-holder, Keshet.
And now he is at yet another Olympics, coordinating the broadcasts from the Olympic village in London and sniping at the press. "All their dark scenarios haven't materialized, the Olympics are going ahead wonderfully, in all the events and competitions. 220,000 employees, volunteers, officials, judges are all putting on a good show" he says. "There have been no transport muddles as they [the media] prophesied. Everything is working fine, athletes are getting on time to the competitions, which are going smoothly. We could improve a bit the media though."
Gilady is in a bullish mood, swatting away the complaints against the IOC and the organizing committee. The IOC has been accused of reserving wide swaths of prime seats at some of the best sporting events for Olympic officials, leading to hundreds of empty seats, while the public has found it next to impossible to obtain tickets.
"It's not the Olympic committees," he responds. "These are tickets which were given to the corporate sponsors and they gave them to their guests who did not arrive. We haven't yet managed to find a solution to this problem. In China [the 2008 Beijing Games] we had soldiers in civilian clothes we could slot into the empty seats. Britain is a different kind of country."
The sponsors are a delicate point, highlighted repeatedly by the British press, as they have been given absolute rights to use the Olympic names and logo, leading to legal action against small local businesses and shops that tried to offer Olympics-related products and services.
"If there weren't sponsors, the British would be asked why they have to pay for these Games," says Gilady. "You can't demand 50 million pounds from the sponsors and then not protect their rights. We have to be the ones who decide where to draw the line and if you have a better system of protecting their rights, tell me about it.
"I can't explain the local media, I don't know why they are so bitter," he says. "There is a problem with this country [Britain] that it has the most cruel media in the world. Maybe they don't like the food at the press center, I don't know. All you seem interested in is negative things, I can promise you that the toilets are full of unpleasant things. But the TV-rights holders are very happy, NBC is very satisfied, so is the BBC. That's what is important." Gilady also has some criticism for the Israeli coverage and the lack of patience with the Israeli athletes' performance so far. "Wait, this is only Day Four, the Games aren't over yet. So far, only 27 nations out of 204 have won medals, we are a bit too greedy." (Since this interview, the number of medal-winning nations has risen to 32 ).
The main criticism toward the IOC from Israeli quarters, and against Gilady personally, has been the refusal to observe a minute's silence at the opening ceremony for the eleven Israeli athletes murdered by Palestinian terrorists 40 years ago at the 1972 Munich Games. Gilady, who has been attacked by the Munich Eleven's families and by Livnat, refuses to revisit his own opposition to the commemoration, but he nearly loses his patience when asked about the objection by some of the family members to seeing IOC President Jacques Rogge at next week's memorial ceremony, which is being organized by the Israeli Olympic Committee and Israeli Embassy.
"I don't think it's the families' business who will be invited," he says. "It is up to the Israeli Olympic Committee. I won't be surprised if next time they will say that they don't want to see him at the opening ceremony."
He denies the fact that they have been demanding a moment's silence at the opening ceremony for 40 years. "They asked for the first time in 1996, never before that. I don't know why and I don't want to investigate why they only asked for it then."
He steadfastly defends Rogge, saying that "he is the man who had a huge part in bringing Israeli sports to Europe, after we were kicked out of Asia. No one has cared for Israeli sports people like Rogge and is making sure they will have a place to compete in the future. He cares for every sportsperson in the world."
Gilady insists that the IOC's policy under Rogge has ensured that every country in the world is at the Olympics. "Do you know of any other organization where both China and Taiwan are represented?" he asks, "not even at the United Nations. But here they both have delegations."
Gilady wants us to focus on the positive sides of the Olympics and is especially proud of the television operation that took four years to plan and cost $250 million. Even more than the sponsorship deals, this is the financial engine of the Olympics, bringing in around $3.5 billion from 180 television stations around the world. Viewer ratings are up by eight percent in the United States, and that includes the so-British opening ceremony, watched by over 40 million Americans. Even the much maligned badminton competition, Gilady reports proudly, drew no less than 6,000 viewers at 5:45 A.M. on the U.S. East Coast.