Munich and the Politics of the IOC

Tonight’s opening ceremony for the 2012 Summer Olympics has been marred by the International Olympic Committee’s refusal to hold a brief moment of silence for the 40th anniversary of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. IOC president Jacques Rogge claims that the reason is that “the Opening Ceremony is an atmosphere that is not fit to remember such a tragic incident.” But, as various commentators have pointed out, the IOC has held commemorations for other tragedies at previous opening ceremonies, including for Bosnian victims of the siege of Sarajevo (1996 [update: possibly it was actually in 1994]) and the victims of 9/11 (2002). If the Opening Ceremony is an appropriate venue for acknowledging tragedies that have no connection to the Olympics, it is even more clearly appropriate for honoring the victims of the worst act of terrorism in Olympic history.

It’s pretty obvious that the real reason for the IOC’s refusal has nothing to do with appropriateness and everything to do with fear of offending Arab nations, as Rogge privately admitted to the widow of one of the Munich victims. This is not the first time that the IOC has been inconsistent in its political statements. For example, beginning in the 1960s, it understandably banned apartheid South Africa from participating in the Olympics. But it did not ban numerous dictatorships with comparable or worse human rights records, including communist regimes guilty of mass murder such as the USSR, North Korea, and Ethiopia. One cannot distinguish between these cases because South Africa’s racial discrimination violated the rights of athletes directly. Communist and other dictatorships also oppressed athletes, as well as many other people. Saddam Hussein’s regime even tortured athletes who didn’t perform as well as expected. North Korea also punishes failed athletes, sometimes to the point of sending them to prison camps. Yet Iraq and North Korea were not banned from the games.

The IOC was willing to take action against a pariah state with few sympathizers, but not against more powerful states guilty of comparable and sometimes much worse offenses. Similarly, the Bosnia and and 9/11 commemorations occurred because few if any powerful states objected, while the Israeli Munich victims will get shortchanged because of the influence of the Arab regimes.

I don’t believe the IOC leadership actually approves of what happened in Munich in 1972. But they clearly do have some of the appeasement mentality associated with Munich back in 1938. They denounce the evil ways of pariahs (Al Qaeda, apartheid South Africa), but not comparable evils that have powerful supporters (communist dictatorships, Palestinian terrorism).

What should IOC do going forward? It should replace hypocrisy with consistency.

One option would be a consistent policy of refusing to make any political statements whatsoever, on the grounds that the IOC is a sports organization with no official political commitments. Thus, any nation can compete, no matter how bad its human rights record. And no commemorations for anything even remotely political. The IOC would maintain the same kind of absolute political neutrality that Olympia did in ancient Greece, when all Greek city states were allowed to participate in the games, sometimes in spite of committing various atrocities that were widely condemned by contemporaries. If it adopted this approach, the IOC could credibly claim that it is above politics, and prefers to leave political issues to other organizations better suited to addressing them.

Alternatively, the IOC could adopt a human rights standard that is consistently applied. Any nation will be banned from the Games if it, say, engages in mass murder or other massive human rights abuses. The offending state will be excluded no matter how influential it is. And it goes without saying that such massive human rights violators will be ineligible to host the games. There would be no repeat of Berlin 1936 and Moscow 1980. Under this approach, the IOC could also hold commemorations for all human rights abuses that are closely associated with the Games themselves in some way; and perhaps also for unrelated abuses that are sufficiently large-scale in nature. One can debate how high the human rights floor should be or how closely a tragedy has to be related to the games before it gets its own moment of silence. But whatever rules are established should be consistently applied.

Either consistent approach would be a big improvement over the hypocritical status quo.

UPDATE: I should add that a professional organization, as per my first option for the IOC, that maintains strict neutrality on political issues need not be immoral or relativistic. Such neutrality could be motivated by a belief that the organization can do the most good by sticking to its narrow field of expertise rather than opining on issues better addressed by other institutions. In some cases, addressing tangentially related moral and political issues could even detract from that mission. For example, I don’t want the American Association of Law Schools to take positions on gay marriage and other controversial political and legal issues – not because these issues aren’t important or don’t have right answers, but because opining on them would undermine the AALS’ primary purpose. But if the IOC is going to be neutral, it must maintain that neutrality consistently, not selectively.

UPDATE #2: Jeremy Stahl of Slate points out that the Olympic opening ceremony actually included not one but two moments of silence, including one for the victims of the two world wars and other international conflicts. This further undercuts Jacques Rogge’s ridiculous claim that the IOC could not hold a moment of silence for the Munich victims because the opening ceremony is not an appropriate venue to commemorate tragedies. As Stahl puts it, “[i]t’s now clear that Rogge wasn’t telling the whole truth. It’s not that the opening ceremony wasn’t fit to remember tragedies. It’s that the IOC wanted to pick and choose which tragedies to remember.”