The history of the Olympics movement has long been marred by a persistent strain of anti-Semitism and bias against Israel. But those who thought the unhappy memories of Berlin in 1936 and Munich in 1972 should not influence our opinion of this behemoth of global sport were just sucker-punched by the election of a new head of the International Olympic Committee. German lawyer Thomas Bach won the presidency of the IOC on a second-ballot vote in Buenos Aires yesterday and began his reign over the sports empire by pledging neutrality in the political disputes that are part and parcel of the Olympics landscape. That notion was undermined by the fact that the first congratulatory phone call Bach received was from Russian President Vladimir Putin who is counting on the IOC head to protect the 2014 Sochi Winter Games from being derailed by protests over Russia’s anti-gay laws. But the pious talk about respecting the Olympic Charter and inclusion is also given the lie by a key fact about Bach’s biography.
Though Bach is being touted as a savvy veteran of Olympic legal tangles including leading anti-doping efforts as well as being a former Gold Medal fencer, the German lawyer’s day job is as chairman of Ghorfa, the Arab-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry. That sounds innocuous enough. But rather than just a straight-forward promoter of trade between Germany and the Arab world, as the Times of Israel reports, according to the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin Ramer Institute, Ghorfa was actually set up in the 1970s in order to facilitate the boycott of Israel:
Ghorfa helps German companies ensure that products meet the import requirements of Arab governments, some of which ban products and services from Israel.
The group continues to issue certificates of German origin for trade with Arab countries. Its earlier practice of certificates verifying that no product parts were produced in Israel stopped in the early 1990s when Germany enacted trade regulations forbidding the use of certificates of origin to enable de facto trade boycotts.
Such a record is hardly unusual in the Olympics hierarchy. Bach, who was a strong supporter of his predecessor’s refusal to hold even a moment of silence to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the slaughter of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics at last year’s London Games had strong support from the Arab world in the IOC election.
The Olympics has consistently refused to commemorate the Munich massacre largely because of the resistance to any mention of the crime on the part of the movement’s Arab and Muslim countries. But Bach’s role in both boycotting Israel and supporting the IOC’s stonewalling of protests about its failure to have even a moment of silence puts him in the grand tradition of his predecessor Avery Brundage, the head of the movement from 1952-1972.
Brundage, the only American ever to head the IOC, helped prevent a boycott of the 1936 Berlin games and has long been suspected of being behind the U.S. team’s decision to keep the two Jewish athletes on the track team—future broadcaster Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller—from competing. Widely accused of anti-Semitism, he closed his career in sports by responding to terrorism in Munich by stating that the “games must go on.”
Since 1972, the Olympics have kept to that motto, ignoring the crime against Israel even while devoting time at its opening ceremonies to other acts of terrorism, such as last year’s commemoration of the attack on London on July 7, 2005.
In that context, Bach’s role in facilitating the efforts of German companies to boycott the State of Israel makes perfect sense. Far from such credentials serving, as they might were the Olympics a movement that was actually dedicated to the principles of equality and justice as it claims to be, to disqualify the German, his discriminatory practices were seen by many IOC committee members as a virtue.
In the past, the Olympics was a noxious mix of extreme nationalism and fake amateurism. But now that it has shed its façade of opposition to professionalism, it is merely a big business that profits from enormous television contracts. Even though most people only care about these events two weeks out of every four years, the Olympics are more popular than ever and any effort to oppose using it to paint despotic regimes in an attractive light are bound to fail since few viewers or advertisers want details about human rights to interfere with their fun or their profits. That was why any effort to shine a light on Putin’s tyranny will be largely ignored just as similar concerns about China collapsed in 2008.
Bach’s election is just one more reason for people of good will, including those, such as myself, who love sports, to ignore the Olympics. Like the United Nations, whose prejudicial practices it mirrors, the reality of the Olympics has little to do with the high ideals it purports to uphold.