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.