So much for setting aside politics at the Olympics

I was always taught that the Olympics were supposed to be a time when national rivalries and enmities were set aside in favor of pure sport: the competition of human versus human, decided only on the basis of athletic prowess. Indeed, in ancient Greece, political truces were announced during the Olympics so that athletes from warring states could attend the games in safety.

Well, we all know of the jingoism aroused by the modern games—perhaps one reason I’ve tired of them is the incessant “Go USA” attitude of American television announcers—but that’s the same kind of innocuous (usually) tribalism that attends baseball or soccer matches. And it’s not nearly as odious as the latest incident reported by ESPN and the Washington Post.

The Israeli and Lebanese Olympics teams became involved in a heated argument about access to a bus to the opening ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Games.

Both sides acknowledged Saturday that Israeli athletes were blocked from boarding a bus packed with the Lebanon team on Friday but they are at odds over the reasons for the actions of the head of the Lebanese delegation.

Israel portrayed it as a hostile act, maintaining that organizers had told them to use the bus to reach the Maracana Stadium.

“The organizing committee saw the blunt behavior of the head of the Lebanese delegation and immediately arranged a different bus for us,” Gili Lusting, head of the Israeli delegation, said in a statement to The Associated Press. “The behavior of the head of the Lebanese delegation contradicts the Olympic Charter.”

Sailing coach Udi Gal said Lebanon chef de mission Salim Haj Nicola “physically blocked the entrance and wouldn’t let us on” after the driver opened the door.

“We wanted to stand up for ourselves but you can’t cause trouble,” Gal, a former Olympic sailor, told Israel’s Channel 2 television.

Haj Nicola insisted that he had the right to prevent another team’s athletes from joining them on the transport reserved for them.

“I asked the bus driver to close the door but the guide with the Israeli team prevented him from doing so,” Haj Nicola told Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar. “I then stood at the door of the bus to prevent the Israel team from entering and some of them tried to go in and pick up a fight.”

Haj Nicola told the AP that it was “only a small problem.”

Yes, only a small problem given that the miscreants were Lebanese, and my prediction is that you won’t see this mentioned in the New York Times. But imagine if the situation were reversed: if Israeli athletes had prevented Lebanese, Iraqi, or Iranian athletes from boarding “their” bus. That would have been plastered all over the world press, and further opprobrium would have come down on Israel for anti-Lebanese bigotry.

Israel and Lebanon were of course at war ten years ago (a science meeting in Haifa I was supposed to attend then was canceled because of Lebanese rocket fire), but such things are supposed to be ignored during the Olympics.


  1. Posted August 7, 2016 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Was there room for both countries’ athletes on this bus?

    • Posted August 7, 2016 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      Yes, as far as I know. Believe me, the Lebanese didn’t refuse the Israelis because the bus wasn’t big enough!

      • Artin
        Posted August 9, 2016 at 11:30 am | Permalink

        While I agree with your analysis here being the most likely case, I think there is potentially another way of looking at the actions of the head of the Lebanese delegation:

        Packing a bus full of young (puffed up) athletes with historical divisions, may just not be the most prudent thing to do. Don’t you think?

        • Posted August 9, 2016 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

          Yes, yes, I am sure the Lebanese athlete who refused to allow the Israelis on the bus was merely trying to keep the peace. LOL. My priors on that are low, and given the Lebanese guy’s subsequent statement, the overall Bayesian analysis gives me a probability of about 0.003.

  2. BobTerrace
    Posted August 7, 2016 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    IMO, the Lebanese team, or at least the head of the team, should have been sent home. This would send a clear message that this kind of petty behavior is not tolerated.

    • Craw
      Posted August 7, 2016 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      I agree, but clearly it *is* tolerated.

  3. Mattapult
    Posted August 7, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    They don’t have to be best buddies, or even like each other. But please, at least tolerate each other for two weeks.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted August 7, 2016 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      Yes! This kind of petty behaviour should have no place at the Olympics. If people focused on sport can’t get over themselves and provide a positive example there’s little hope for the future resolution of political issues.

      It’s particularly disappointing given the history of members of the Israeli team being murdered at the Olympics (Munich, 1972). That’s my first memory of terrorism as a child.

      • Posted August 7, 2016 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

        It shouldn’t even be something that only unites people who like sports. This is something for all humans to get behind. Let see what humanity is capable of!

  4. Orli Peter
    Posted August 7, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    And now the response…Looks like the Lebanese leader that barred the Israelis from boarding the bus is responding in the typical way bigoted bullies respond — he’s taking credit for barring them, blaming them for their resistance to his bullying, and then saying the whole thing was a misunderstanding when he finally got caught.

  5. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted August 7, 2016 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    As long as I can remember, politics has always cropped up in the Olympics. Wikipedia provides some accounts of politics in the ancient Olympics.

    • Posted August 8, 2016 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      My earliest memories of the Olympics were the 1984 summer games in LA – I don’t remember anything from 1980, for example. I was in Vancouver with my parents visiting my west-coast relatives, and I had somehow absorbed the bit about “above politics” thing even then. Of course, the 1984 games were the second in a row to have a massive boycott, so even then I sort of wondered …

  6. colnago80
    Posted August 7, 2016 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    It was reported in the NY Times, at least the online addition.

  7. Christopher
    Posted August 7, 2016 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    You can have turds bobbing about in the water where some events are taking place, you can have a whole cadre of ‘roided-up Russian athletes, the greater than usual corruption and clearing out the impoverished so they can’t be seen by the TV companies, why not throw in a little old fashion anti-semitism for good measure? Anything goes in these Olympics.

  8. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted August 7, 2016 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    A basic question for the non-US-ians out there: how is the coverage of the Olympics where you live? Here it is mostly (but not entirely) focused on our American athletes. I did see some events without a single American, but certainly not many.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted August 7, 2016 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      The BBC has a “red-button” option that enables viewers to get a live feed from whatever events are taking place at the time. As I write we have the choice of gymnastics, hockey, judo, fencing, tennis, archery, beach volleyball or rugby 7s. Only a few of these involve Brits (or Americans, come to that).

      I gather however that from 2024 the “free-to-view” stipulation that currently applies to the Olympics will disappear, since the TV rights have been sold to a US commercial media organisation (please correct me if I have this wrong). The rest of the world may then have to put up with what the US provider deigns to give us.

      Sometimes I think the IOC is even more horrible and corrupt than FIFA.

      • W.Benson
        Posted August 7, 2016 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

        In Brazil three open channels are broadcasting events in which Brazilians are competing and have some chance at winning a medal. Additionally cable carries in Portuguese 13 channels of SporTV, 3 of ESPN, and 2 of Fox Sports, all in HD. There is much attention on popular sports such as atletics and team sports like soccer, basketball and rugby even when Brazilians are not much in the running.
        I would like to know how the opening ceremony was viewed by non-Brasilians.

        • Steve Pollard
          Posted August 7, 2016 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

          It was covered on all TV channels and reviewed on all media outlets in the UK. People noted the polished presentation of Brazil’s history and the emphasis on the environment. A great show!

          In my previous comment, I should have added that the “red-button” option only works if you have interactive TV. There are a lot of these in the UK but I’m not sure of the %. But the non-interactive BBC does try to cover a fair range of sports, not just those involving Brits

        • Posted August 8, 2016 at 9:07 am | Permalink

          My wife and I enjoyed the opening ceremonies and appreciated the fact that they didn’t ignore the history of slavery and it’s impact on the country.

    • Henry Fitzgerald
      Posted August 7, 2016 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

      Australian coverage could hardly be more jingoistic and it drives me nuts (note: I’m talking about the past; I’m not watching it this year).

      It’s: “And now over to the fencing, round two, Australia vs Lithuania. Damn, Australia lost. Well, that’s enough fencing for the year.”

      One thing I keep telling people: you really should see Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary Olympia. It was a huge propaganda coup for the Nazis that she made it, but the actual content of the movie is far less objectionably flag-waving, far more feelgood embracing humanity, and actually feels less fascist than typical Olympic TV coverage today.

      And in fact that’s why it was a huge propaganda coup for the Nazis.

      • Craw
        Posted August 7, 2016 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

        Canadian coverage is also very Canadian centric. It was really embarassing during the Vancouver games.

        • Claudia Baker
          Posted August 8, 2016 at 8:41 am | Permalink

          Glad I’m not the only Canadian who felt that way. I couldn’t even bear to watch the Vancouver games. Such jingoistic BS.

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 7, 2016 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Individual Olympic athletes ought to be able to speak their mind freely about politics or any other matter. But state politics ought to be kept out of the games. We USians crossed a line there by boycotting the 1980 games in Moscow (resulting in the retaliatory Soviet boycott of the ’84 games in Los Angeles).

    It’s hard to justify such boycotts, particularly given US participation in the 1936 games in Berlin (where Jesse Owen put the lie to Aryan supremacy before god, Hitler, and Leni Riefenstahl’s cameras) and Western countries’ refusal to boycott the 2008 games in Beijing, despite China’s abysmal human-rights record.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 7, 2016 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      That’s Jesse Owens. Sorry, man, didn’t mean to slight an alumnus of the Cleveland East Tech scarabs.

    • Posted August 7, 2016 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

      (resulting in the retaliatory Soviet boycott of the ’84 games in Los Angeles).

      Much to the disappointment of LA drug dealers.

      The Olympics has always been political. Whether it’s Hitler promoting fascism, John Carlos throwing a Black power salute, the murder of Israelis, the boycotts, or the current debates over gender, it’s all politics.

      The running and jumping is just incidental.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 8, 2016 at 2:24 am | Permalink

        LA drug dealers did just fine in ’84; they always do when tourists flood into town. Plus, street dealers don’t stock the dope the Russian athletes were using. That came from the medical arm of the Soviet sports establishment.

        I’ve got no problem with individual athletes like John Carlos and Tommy Smith expressing their personal political views at the Olympic games. Politic is the natural state of human affairs. But nations that agree to participate in the Olympics shouldn’t be using the games as a tool of foreign policy.

        My complaint with 1936 games was not so much with Hitler’s conduct (which was about what one might expect) as with the way the International Olympic Committee (and, in particular, the American Olympic Association led by arch-conservative Avery Brundage) catered to Hitler’s fascist whims — including by keeping the two Jewish sprinters on the ’36 US track team (one of whom was Marty Glickman, later a hall-of-fame sports announcer) from competing in the 4X100 meter relay race.

        • Ross
          Posted August 8, 2016 at 6:41 am | Permalink

          It’s amusing in a comment thread with a question about US-centric coverage (and if other country’s coverage is as bad) that you missed out the name of Peter Norman – the Australian who came second in the race, who wore an OPHR badge, who told Smith and Carlos that “I’ll stand with you” and who pretty much found himself shunned by the Aussie sports scene because of it.

          He did get a posthumous apology in 2012 from the Australian parliament so we got a little better in 44 years.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted August 8, 2016 at 9:35 am | Permalink

            Norman was the one who recommended that Smith and Carlos share a pair of gloves, after John discovered that he had left his pair back at the Olympic village. Norman also humbly asked to be left off the statue commemorating the event that stands on the campus of San Jose State University (Smith and Carlos’s alma mater). I certainly meant no slight to him.

            • Ross
              Posted August 8, 2016 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

              Ken – apologies if I came across as critical. It was just that it appealed to my odd sense of humour just how much we’re all sort of conditioned by the vision we get through the broadcasters. You seem to be American so it’s expected that they’d talk about the two US athletes, my mother (UK) didn’t know anything about ‘the other guy’ as the BBC didn’t report anything about him.

              I know about Peter Norman as I’m an Aussie of a certain age. Old enough for the stand in ’68 to be relevant but young enough to be brought into a more anti-racist attitude through acts like those athletes and to be amazed that no-one in my country seemed to think he did a ‘good thing’

              Peter had to face up to the ‘White Australia’ views still prevalent well into the 70’s (that arguably disrupted any ‘benefits’ of the Versailles peace for Japan – our ally in WWI, our enemy in WWII) and perhaps are coming back again.

              Peter Hunter – not only our best sprinter but possibly our best human. And we never talked about him until the world changed and we needed to grow up.

    • Craw
      Posted August 7, 2016 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

      Less was known in 1936 of what Germany would become, in fairness. But let’s say Kristallnacht had happened in 1934, and Germany had invaded Czechoslovakia in late 1935. Wouldn’t a boycott of Hitler’s games in 1936 be right?

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 8, 2016 at 1:47 am | Permalink

        Invasion of the Sudetenland should’ve prompted England to go to war, which would’ve resulted in the cancellation of the ’36 Olympics, just as it did the 1940 games scheduled for Tokyo and the ’44 games scheduled for London.

  10. nwalsh
    Posted August 7, 2016 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Canada has its own networks there, so we have pretty good choices, ours and NBC.

  11. Alex Press
    Posted August 7, 2016 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Yes, the New York Times (and the press in general) is so anti-Israel, just like the Pope is so anti-Catholic.

  12. Joseph Stans
    Posted August 7, 2016 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Both the Lebanese and the Israeli teams should be forced to go for and extended swim in the bay.

    • Posted August 7, 2016 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      You want both teams poisoned? And why, exactly?

    • W.Benson
      Posted August 7, 2016 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

      Actually, swimming in the bay is just fine, but you should avoid stepping on the bottom.

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted August 7, 2016 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

        I think the appropriate response should be: Ewww.

  13. jay
    Posted August 7, 2016 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    “I’ve tired of them is the incessant “Go USA” attitude of American television announcers—but that’s the same kind of innocuous (usually) tribalism that attends baseball or soccer matches. ”

    that is a good point Jerry. In itself cheering for one’s side (within reason) is part of the event… no more evil that cheering for your kids at sports. It’s not that you think other people’s kids are evil but you simply want to see your kids win.

    Sadly, you are also right about the fact that the Times, as well as MOST of the left establishment will see nothing wrong with this bad behavior, and PURELY because of the monolithic antisemitic posture of most of the left these days.

    • jay
      Posted August 7, 2016 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

      Replying to my comment as kind of a post script.

      The Olympics has become far more of a marketing organization. This can be seen in the policies to block any non sponsor displays… i.e fans have been prohibited from wearing shirts or other apparel that had a logo from a non sponsoring company. One of the previous Olympics, one of the contestants was prohibited from wearing his ‘lucky’ wristwatch because the manufacturer was a competitor to one of the sponsors.

      I am not antibusiness, or antimarketing, but I do object to the aloof status the Olympics seems to portray for itself when it is primarily a money making organization. It should be viewed more like commercial sports teams than any kind of a noble icon.

      • Filippo
        Posted August 8, 2016 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

        ” . . . prohibited from wearing shirts or other apparel that had a logo from a non sponsoring company.”

        Is there an official underwear and jock strap sponsor? Must a contestant drop his drawers to prove his innocence?

    • Christopher
      Posted August 7, 2016 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

      I like to cheer for underdogs personally, which isn’t often the US. I really enjoyed watching Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu win her gold in the women’s 400 medley, and her husband/coach who was cheering/jumping/screaming/chest-pounding on the side of the pool was great.

      I don’t care much for the flag-waving nationalism, or the USA chants, I like the backstories, the athleticism, the broken records, and since we’re so jumbled up through immigration and mixed marriages, the flags matter not one bit to me.

      • Posted August 8, 2016 at 9:14 am | Permalink

        Apparently her husband/coach is abusive to the point that other swimmers won’t train in the same pool as her because they can’t stand being around him and hearing/seeing the abuse.

        • Filippo
          Posted August 8, 2016 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

          They ought to video him. (Unless the Olympic fascists have some rule against that, too.) And yell at him too.

  14. Posted August 7, 2016 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    When Steven Spielberg was scheduled to direct the opening of the ceremony for the Beijing Olympics (boo, hiss) The Guardian compared him to Leni Riefenstahl.

    I’m pretty sure if it’d been Coppola or Scorsese they wouldn’t have gone for that comparison.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 8, 2016 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      Why would that have been? Apocalypse Now and Last Temptation of Christ were at least as controversial as anything Spielberg has done. And I think all three of them lean left in their politics.

  15. Randall Schenck
    Posted August 7, 2016 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    It is very easy to find issues with the Olympics and all the flag waving is high on the list. Always thought that judged events should be eliminated because they were always corrupt. Probably the worst however, was Munich 1972 and it makes one wonder if any of this is worth it.

    Most cities and countries that attempt to hold these things end up with huge costs they can not afford. The Olympics has become too big, too many sports and too much money. They should consider holding it in one place all the time so the buildings are reusable. Maybe holding parts of it in different locations.

    The U.S. won a metal in air rifle already. I had no idea?

  16. Posted August 7, 2016 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    Say what you will about the interest/draw of the Olympics, I have to come down on the side of saying it is compelling and consuming. These are people who can do things no other people on earth can. These are people at the absolute top of their game. They have achieved, by dint of more dedication, more will power, and yes, in part by better genetics, more than billions upon billions of other humans. These are deeds to be proud of.

    • darrelle
      Posted August 8, 2016 at 7:13 am | Permalink

      I agree. I agree with most of the complaints as well, but in the final balance there is still something special there.

    • Filippo
      Posted August 8, 2016 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

      ” . . . billions upon billions . . . .”

      Just congenially curious – approximately how many is that, as compared to, say, “billions”?

  17. dallos
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    “Serbian officials have reportedly told their athletes that they shouldn’t share any medal stands with Olympians from Kosovo while competing down in Rio.”

    [“Kosovo is currently recognized as an independent state by 109 out of 193 United Nations members, including the United States, but is not yet a member of the U.N.”]

    • Posted August 8, 2016 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      Being from a recognized state doesn’t seem to always be necessary. I seem to remember reading that some athletes competed as themselves once, and in 1992, there was a “unified team” from the short-lived CIS.

  18. dallos
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    “Disappointingly, during the Hungarian public broadcaster M4′s coverage of the one hundred metre butterfly, they completely and seemingly deliberately neglected to mention Ms. Mardini. Jenő Knézy Jr., who is reporting live from Rio on behalf of the public broadcaster, mentioned four out of the five females competing–the only one he did not utter at all was the name of the Syrian refugee. It was as though she did not even exist– even though viewers could see her on their television screens. Mr. Knézy managed to avoid mentioning her, even after she won.”

  19. Dominic
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 3:43 am | Permalink

    I do not understand why the fact that I share a nationality with a person means that I should be able to bask in the reflected glory of their hard work (or cheating!)….

    If they do well through their efforts, well done, whoever they are.

  20. Bob
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    The New York Times did cover it.

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