Bob Ford: Olympic ideals lose again

Posted: June 07, 2012

The Olympic movement, which likes to sell itself as a politics-free zone where athletes can teach the grown-ups how to get along, is slinking toward another avoidable controversy with its head stuck firmly in the sand of North Africa.

The International Ostrich Committee is aware that what appears to be a state-sponsored policy by Algeria to prevent its Olympic athletes from competing against athletes from Israel will be in place at the London Games.

If the IOC had the courage of its flowery convictions, this bud would be nipped quickly. Algeria should be put on notice that the first time one of its competitors withdraws from a race or competition in which an Israeli is entered, then the entire Olympic team will be banned for the remainder of the Games.

Instead, here's a short summary of what is going to happen: nothing.

The tipoff of Algeria's intent came late last month during a canoe and kayak World Cup event in Germany when a kayaker named Nasreddine Baghdadi took the starting line for a 1,000-meter heat and then slowly paddled back to the dock after the other racers departed. Also entered in the heat was Israeli kayaker Roei Yelling.

"There is an obligation to ask our government if we have to meet Israel in sport," Rachid Hanifi, president of the Algerian Olympic Committee, told the Times of London. "I think that is logical. It is not only a sports decision, it is a political decision. Our athletes represent the whole country, not just our Olympic committee."

Well, that's being direct, if nothing else. Unfortunately, the Olympic charter demands that all national Olympic committees be free of political pressures from their respective governments. On that alone, the IOC could take action immediately, if taking action rather than bowing to insidious prejudice is what interested the leaders of the movement.

One of the ironies is that, as far as Muslim-dominated nations from Africa and the Middle East go, Algeria has always been relatively moderate. The Algerian government instituted some social reforms in 2011 to ease the kind of tensions that brought down governments in other nations in the region, and its relations with the United States are considered excellent. (Nearly 25 percent of Algerian petroleum exports go to the States, so, politics aside, don't expect our government to jump on the pulpit about this one, either.)

But that moderation apparently doesn't extend as far as breaking sweat with Israelis, let alone breaking bread someday. It isn't, quite obviously, the same kind of mind-set that made Americans determined to prove their superiority in 1936 with Hitler in the reviewing stand. If you can't join the other guy, then beat him. That's how we would think.

On the other side of the world, in Algeria, and certainly among the more radical nations such as Iran, the mind-set is that the Israelis are not worthy of meeting in competition as human beings. That's wrong and stupid, but fine. So, don't come.

As the supposed gatekeeper for this nonsense, the IOC has an opportunity to stop it. And it has the responsibility to stop it ahead of time. There are issues, naturally. How can you tell if someone pulls out of a heat because of a sick policy or a quad strain? How can you mind-read intent? Well, juries do it all the time. You take the best evidence available and make a decision.

Regrettably, that's not a specialty of the IOC, which is a business organization covered by a thin veneer of sport. Whatever is bad for business is bad for the IOC, and that includes taking on controversies that it prefers to hope will simply disappear. In this case, if no Algerian athlete is drawn for a heat that includes an Israeli athlete, the cash registers keep ringing and the sponsors keep writing the checks without a second thought.

This latest halting inaction by the IOC comes less than a month after a request from the Israeli foreign ministry that a moment of silence be included in the opening ceremonies in London to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the terrorist attack at the Munich Games that killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches.

"The IOC has officially paid tribute to the memory of the athletes on several occasions," IOC president Jacques Rogge wrote in response to the request.

No, not on the big stage, it hasn't. Never once. There have been small memorials shunted away from the action, and there will be another in London, put together by the Israel Olympic Committee, which has done so in the past. The opening ceremonies aren't the place to mix sober with celebration, because, you know, it might be a bummer for business.

"It is not a display of great courage and integrity," Yigal Palmor, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, told the Associated Press.

It's not much of a surprise, either. Maybe one of these days the IOC hierarchy will read its own charter and study its stated beliefs. Then, there are two choices: Live by the charter or use it to light the Olympic flame and stop pretending.


Contact Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, read his blog at www.philly.com/postpatterns, and follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.

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