Last week, CNN aired a segment on “The Lead with Jake Tapper” about the abdication of leadership at yet another major global institution. The International Olympic Committee won’t even acknowledge the safety and security concerns of Israeli and Jewish athletes who are declining to travel to Doha, Qatar, for the 2024 World Aquatics Championships – the primary qualifier for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
When the award-winning investigative series “Real Sports on HBO” aired its final episode last week, its longtime host Bryant Gumbel ruefully admitted, “Despite all we’ve done on this show, we leave with many of the issues that we thought were important still unresolved: fair pay for college athletes, a reckoning for the IOC, an end to public funding of private stadiums, the list goes on and on.”
Over the past three decades, Gumbel’s show exposed corrupt and inept leadership at sports institutions on every continent. His beef with the Olympic Committee comes from personal experience and dates from a Season 2 interview with then-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who boasted, “We [the Olympic movement] are more important than the Catholic religion.”
In repeated attempts at doublespeak, Samaranch claimed he was misquoted. “I never said this one. I said maybe the Olympic movement has more followers than any religion in the world. I did not mention the Catholic religion.”
The current president, Thomas Bach, updated the Olympic Charter in 2020. The section describing the mission and role of the IOC begins, “To encourage and support the promotion of ethics and good governance in sport as well as education of youth through sport as well as to dedicate its efforts to ensuring that, in sport, the spirit of fair play prevails, and violence is banned.”
Channeling Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, I want to ask Bach, “According to the tenets of Olympism, does forcing an Israeli swimmer to compete in Doha, Qatar, in order to qualify for the Paris Olympics, constitute a violation of the spirit of fair play and the promotion of ethics in sports?”
The answer is yes. The athletes’ dignity is violated. The extra credit question is whether Bach can live with himself after giving a seemingly heartfelt speech at an event marking the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Munich Olympics.
A half-century ago, the Palestinian group Black September attacked the Israeli Olympic delegation while the athletes and their coaches were inside the purported security of the athletes’ village, killing 11 Israelis and a police officer.
Last year, Bach noted that the attack in Munich was one of “the darkest days in Olympic history” and “an assault on the Olympic Games and its values. Everything that the Olympic Games stand for was shattered 50 years ago with the horrific attack on the Israeli Olympic team.”
Israeli President Isaac Herzog hosted the commemoration in Tel Aviv, lamenting the athletes who were “brutally murdered in cold blood by a Palestinian terrorist organization just for being Jews, just because they were Israelis.”
To his credit, Thomas Bach apologized for the too many years it took the IOC to recognize the Israeli victims “in a dignified way. For this pain, and for this anguish, that we caused, I am truly sorry,” the IOC’s president offered to the assembled dignitaries.
Now is the time for Bach and the rest of the IOC’s executive committee to back up those words with action. Surely, the connection between Hamas and Black September cannot be lost on them. It would be ethical and display good governance for the IOC to address the unbearable “Sophie’s choice” facing the Israeli and Jewish athletes, as the clock ticks down to February’s World Championships in Doha.
Jake Tapper began his segment, “In a letter to the IOC, the ‘No to Doha’ campaign writes, ‘Today the leaders of the terrorist death cult, Hamas, live in Doha, Qatar, where they enjoy protection and support from the local government … no Jew could justifiably feel safe in Doha.’”
My daughter became an Israeli citizen this past summer, and now she competes as a member of the Israeli national swim team. Thus, Tapper asked me whether her safety is the primary driver of the #Notodoha campaign.
“How would you like it if you were a world-class athlete being asked to attend an event and perform at your peak, while having the Hamas leadership around the corner?” I wondered aloud.
“Yeah,” Tapper agreed. “She’s focused on competing. She’s focused on representing her country. Then also, this decision to possibly not compete because she doesn’t want to go to a country where Hamas is staying at the local Four Seasons? And, what’s the alternative for your daughter if she ultimately feels like she wouldn’t feel safe in Doha?”
That’s exactly what I was wondering when I wrote the letter to the IOC in November.
Then Tapper asked, “You’ve had no response from the IOC at all?”
When I confirmed and noted that several reporters I’ve spoken to have also been ignored, he stated for the record, “We should note that we [CNN] also reached out to the IOC, and they did not respond to our request for comment.”
Nelson Mandela foresaw the IOC’s dilemma with his profound insight: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”
The situation today transcends logistics or politics; it’s about upholding the unifying spirit of sport, a spirit grievously undermined in the tragic 1972 Munich Olympics. The IOC must now rise to the occasion, honoring its commitment to athletes’ safety and the sanctity of fair play. In doing so, they have a golden opportunity to write a chapter in Olympic history that future generations will remember not for its controversy, but for its courage and integrity.