Olympics / Revisiting the 'Crime of Helsinki'

Israel's perceived failure at the 1952 Games led to a government inquiry.

This week, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the Olympic delegation that will soon head off to London, he assured its members of his faith in them. "We don't do investigative committees, rather we send you with great faith, great support and with the greatest wind at your backs possible," he said.

Israel has won a medal in each Olympiad since 1992, but in 1952 a small scandal rocked the country when its delegation came back empty-handed from the Helsinki Games.

After the perceived fiasco, the government set up a commission to answer the question whether or not the performance of Israel's athletes in the 1952 Olympics, the country's first, meant that Israeli officials had failed at their jobs.

Eran Rofalidis, the liaison between the Prime Minister's Office and the state archive, recently dug out the historic report compiled by the Committee for the Examination of the Israel Delegation's Appearance in the 15th Olympiad.

What were its conclusions 60 years ago? "The fact that we didn't win in any of the selected events is not a matter of failure," the panel concluded. "In particular, let it be said that it should not be expected of us to make any great achievements in our first appearance. Success in the future will only come after many years of continuous activity and the advancement of sport in the country."

The commission detailed the delegation's achievements, among them Yoav Ra'anan's ninth-place finish in diving; David Tabak's 18th-place finish among 70 competitors in the 100-meter dash; and the shooting team, which showed great improvement despite a lack of experience in competition, as some of its members finished near the middle of the pack.

The commission also had some criticism. It wrote that the basketball team played at international level in practice, but flopped in its games. The report was also critical of the relationship between the basketball coach and his players.

The panel concluded that Israel avoid sending untrained athletes to the following Olympiad. Some of the 1952 delegation, the commission noted, fell far short of the minimal Olympic athletic standard, and there was no way they could have given a creditable performance. "We doubt whether there was a need for all of them to appear," the report stated. "While young athletes learn from their showing in the Olympiad, achieving a minimum level should be a precondition for appearing."

The Israel Olympic Committee didn't take this quietly. It complained that the report failed to reprimand those who slandered the delegation, especially "those journalists who in humiliating fashion wrote about the 'crime of Helsinki.'" The Olympic committee concluded its rejoinder on a proud note: "Now the public and the press will at last give fitting appreciation of the important undertaking of our first participation in an Olympiad."