The Olympics are supposed to uphold the principles of fair play, goodwill and friendship among the world’s diverse nations.
But inevitably, the games are also a source of controversy and political maneuvering. This was apparent in the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics that open in Beijing today.
China and the International Olympic Committee have waged a PR battle over accusations of human rights abuses in the country, and some nations had suggested they may not participate in the XXIX Olympiad due to China’s occupation of Tibet and its support for the Sudanese government. None have withdrawn.
As the Olympics become more of a political pressure point and a rallying call for human rights organizations and activist groups, Israel may soon be attracting more attention — especially since Arab countries have begun applying to host the games.
Recently, Qatar and Dubai expressed interest in hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics. However, neither country officially recognizes Israel.
“It’s hard to imagine the Olympic committee awarding the games to any country that would not accept all members of the IOC,” said Joel Migdal, a professor of international and Israel studies at the University of Washington.
Israel has been a member of the IOC since 1933, when it was a part of the British Mandate for Palestine. It first participated as an independent country in the 1952 Olympiad and brought home its first two medals 40 years later from the Barcelona games.
“The question is,” Migdal said. “Would an Arab country hold the games and invite Israeli athletes despite the fact that they don’t have diplomatic relations; when in fact they are still technically at war?”
It is a volatile question, and one that has not been addressed by either Qatar or Dubai.
Both states are widely acknowledged to be the first Arab countries with the potential and finances to host the Olympic games. Dubai dropped its bidding process early for unknown reasons. Qatar made a strong bid for the 2016 Olympiad to be held in Doha, but did not make the final selection, despite receiving high scores during the IOC’s initial appraisal process.
The Doha bid received a 6.9 score from the IOC, which was appraised higher than Rio de Janeiro (6.4) and nearly on par with Chicago (7.0). Both cities made the final four for 2016. The IOC assesses things like infrastructure, environmental and political conditions, and experience with large-scale sporting events when grading candidate cities.
Although Qatar’s bid was officially nixed due to high summer temperatures (they would have held the games in October) and human rights concerns regarding women, the impact of Israeli athletes competing on Qatari soil may have also been an issue the IOC didn’t want to address.
Severin Roald, the press relations officer for Doha’s 2016 Olympic bid, refused to answer questions about Israel’s participation if the games were held in Qatar.
“I can definitely not comment on that one,” he said when contacted in Qatar.
None of the 12 Arab or Muslim countries or Olympic representatives contacted for this article responded to questions about Israel and the Olympics.
“They are never going to call you back on this,” said Seattle-based Israel advocate Rob Jacobs. “They don’t want to go public and say they would never would show up in Israel or allow in Israeli athletes.”
Jacobs, head of Israel-advocacy organization StandWithUs Northwest, has a tough time envisioning an Olympics in the Middle East anytime soon, given the current political climate. When asked if he thought Israel would ever be able to host the Olympic games, he replied with a laugh — an Israeli Olympics in the near future would almost assuredly incur a boycott from most Muslim nations.
“It is something good to look forward to,” Jacobs said. “But it’s so hypothetical, it’s such an unrealistic hope given the circumstances. If the IOC were ever to award the Olympics to Israel or one of the Arab Muslim states, they would have to resolve the issue of Israel and Palestine first.”
It is not only the politics of the region that would hinder an Olympics in Israel. Economy, security and finances must also be taken into consideration. Migdal pointed out that Israel would most likely not have the infrastructure or money to host such an extravagant event.
“It is impossible that Israel would ever be considered a hosting country,” he said. “It’s much too small and it takes a tremendous amount of money. That’s why [the IOC] chooses places like Beijing and L.A. and not, say, Bolivia.”
The average cost of hosting the Olympics runs in the multi-billions of dollars. Athens’ 2004 games were estimated to have cost between $10-$12 billion and China’s Olympics have a staggering budget of $23 billion. It is a major financial investment for a country like Israel that has a GDP of roughly $120–$160 billion annually.
Although the challenges facing any Olympics held in the Middle East are daunting, Middle East politics remain prevalent in the games no matter where they are held.
Several Arab nations, mainly Iran, have unofficially boycotted Israel by refusing to compete against Israeli athletes — the most famous being World Judo Champion Arash Miresmaeili, who claims he deliberately disqualified himself rather than face his first-round Israeli opponent Ehud Vaks.
Israel has also used the games as a protest venue. In 1936, Palestine, under the British Mandate, refused to participate in the Berlin games due to the anti-Semitic policies of the Nazi government. In 1980, Israel took part in a U.S.-led, 50-country boycott of the games in Moscow over the invasion of Afghanistan.
But Israel’s Olympic legacy will always be tied to Munich 1972, when Palestinian Black September terrorists murdered 11 members of the Israeli delegation. Arguably the most horrific crime to ever take place during an Olympic season, the assassinations remain a difficult memory for the international community to shake, especially with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still unresolved. It is that lasting image of animosity that may forever keep the Olympics out of Middle East.