c. 2008 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) I suffer from a unique form of schizophrenia: hatred of the Olympics and respect for the athletes.
Unfortunately, being a member of university track and wrestling teams and a college sports editor did not provide immunity to this condition.
There are many causes for my Olympic malady: religious and racial bigotry, dictatorial hypocrisy, doping of athletes, ugly nationalism and indifference to human rights.
At the 1936 games in Hitler’s Berlin, there were calls for America to boycott the Olympics because of Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitism. The Catholic journal Commonweal and Alfred E. Smith, a prominent Catholic and the 1928 Democratic presidential nominee, were leaders in that campaign.
But Avery Brundage, the U.S. Olympic Committee leader, rejected their appeals, claiming the proposed boycott was a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy.”
No one was surprised when the Nazis banned German Jews from their “Aryan” team, but Brundage appeased his Nazi hosts by removing the only two Jewish members of the U.S. team: Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller. Glickman later became a well-known sportscaster.
Brundage also opposed women participating in the games, and he blocked efforts to return the gold medals stripped from Jim Thorpe when it was discovered the great American Indian athlete played professional baseball before the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. (It’s worth noting that during those games, Thorpe defeated young Brundage in two track events.)
Brundage always insisted Olympians must be “amateurs,” a requirement flaunted by many countries, especially the Soviet Union and its satellites. That hypocritical rule no longer exists.
In 1968, American medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the medal stand in Mexico City as a sign of black solidarity. Brundage threw the pair off the team and expelled them from the Olympic Village. But like Glickman, Smith and Carlos went on to achieve professional success in the athletic world.
In 1972, Brundage headed the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and during the Munich summer games, Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli athletes and one German police official. There were calls to suspend the games to honor the memories of the slain Olympians. A Los Angeles Times columnist called the continuation of the Olympics “almost like having a dance at Dachau,” referring to the nearby Nazi concentration camp.
Of course, Brundage refused. There was one day of mourning at the games and a memorial service, at which he spoke. He barely mentioned the victims, but emphasized instead that the Olympics “are open to commercial, political and now criminal pressure. The 20th Olympiad has been subject to two savage attacks. … The games must go on.”
Between 1976 and 1988, communist East Germany produced an extraordinary number of gold medal women swimmers. Now we know why. Following the regime’s collapse in the 1990s, 20 former coaches admitted the East German success was achieved through the use of steroids. When pressed about any possible damage to the women, one coach replied, “Bodies are expendable.”
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter led a U.S. boycott of the Moscow games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; four years later, the USSR retaliated by boycotting the Los Angeles Olympics.
In the run-up to this year’s polluted Beijing Olympics, China did two things very well: It spent $43 billion preparing for the games, and it cracked down even harder on human rights. A top IOC official angered rights groups by commenting, “The way the Games are being used as a platform for groups with political and social agendas is often regrettable.”
Using the Olympic “platform” to publicly oppose Chinese support of Sudan’s Darfur massacres, the brutal Myanmar regime, China’s own repression of Tibetans and its overall horrific human rights record may be many things, but it is not “regrettable.”
The IOC insists there is a misconception that “human rights promises” were sought from the Chinese. I never had such a misconception. Brundage may have died in 1975, but his malevolent Olympic legacy lives on in today’s cowardly language and indifference.
(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of “The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us.”)
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