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Rabbi Wein’s Weekly Blog
The Olympic Games that took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, are allegedly supposed to be all about sports, fair play and world camaraderie. However, underlying all of the hoopla, spin and fanfare, is the knowledge deep within all of us, that the games are all about money – lots of money for the athletes, promoters, cities involved and the pompous officials who rule the sporting games. (Gulp!)
This may appear to be too cynical an assessment of such a grand event, one which captivates millions of people around the globe. But the sordid history of the Olympic Games and of its organizers over the past century, pretty much vindicates this harsh assessment of their motives and goals.
Like its counterpart in soccer/football, the World Cup, the Olympics is also awash in scandal, corruption, pay-offs, illegal trafficking and other non-sportsmanlike but hugely lucrative activities. The Olympics is an enormous business generating hundreds of millions if not even billions of dollars. Because of this financial factor, there can be no doubt that human venality and corruption will also be present at many stages regarding rulings on the myriad details that go in to the actual production of the games.
The athletes receive gold, silver and bronze medals, which are really only of symbolic value. However, they certainly have the ability to convert their fame into fortune and most of them have commercial agents anxious and willing to help them do so. The days of pure amateur athletics are long past and the Olympics itself allows for competition by athletes who are professional and earn money on a grand scale.
The Olympics are not only tainted by money, something which is perhaps inescapable with the human condition being what it is, it also suffers from political and moral pressures. Hitler staged the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and the team from the United States excluded Jews from actual participation in certain competitions in the fear of offending Hitler. The fact that an Afro-American, Jesse Owens, won a number of track and field medals in was doubly ironic and infuriated the Fuhrer.
Israel is always subject to problems at the Olympics. Naturally we all remember the Olympic Games held in Munich Germany a few decades ago, where Israeli athletes were murdered by Arab terrorists, aided by lax German security. This time around, the Israeli delegation was subject to verbal abuse and demonstrations from other athletes and from some spectators in the crowds.
Israel has won a few medals and is entitled to fair treatment. As usual however, it is the only country singled out for negative events and comments. It seems that the rest of the world is perfect, peaceful, law-abiding, never repressive while Israel is the sole culprit of world society. Somehow we have become accustomed to our status so that it hardly even makes the news here in Israel, let alone anywhere else in the world. But again, if the organizers of the Olympics had a shred of decency left within them, it would certainly be incumbent upon them to take steps to prevent such ugly and discriminatory behavior from occurring.
Poor Russia. After decades of systematic illegal doping of its athletes in order to achieve sports domination, the Olympic committee finally took action by banning Soviet athletes from participation in this year’s Olympics unless they undergo rigorous testing. Thus Russia will not be a major medal winner this time around.
Putin loudly bewailed the fact that Russia was singled out for punishment. He also stoutly denied that such a program of doping ever took place in the past and presently. However his claims fell on deaf ears, with many of the Russian athletes themselves admitting that his systematic doping program exists in their training. Putin is interested in restoring the Cold War superpower status of Russia. His blunt foreign policy, his aggressions in Ukraine and Syria and his support of Iran all are symptoms of this dangerous goal that he hopes to achieve.
To him the Olympics are just another tool and front of his overall campaign for Russia’s place in the sun. I imagine that it is impossible to free the Olympics from political and diplomatic pressures just as it is unlikely that monetary corruption will be completely eliminated from the production of the games. But one can hope for better times and for a more honest competition.
The ancient Olympic Games in Greece never ranked high in the eyes of our religious leaders. Perhaps they were well aware of the dark side that seems to always accompany this competition.
II Reliving the 1972 Munich Olympic Massacre of Israeli athletes, from a survivor of the Munich Olympics and the Holocaust, age 80.
(Has Hashem shone his countenance upon this man? Have the winds always been at his back?)
By Hillel Kutler
Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA), 08/21/16
OMER, Israel (JTA) – Shaul Ladany, a two-time Olympian, acknowledged that he was “very happy” that the International Olympic Committee finally held an official memorial for the 11 Israelis who were killed in a terrorist raid at the 1972 Munich games.
But Ladany, an Israeli racewalker who still holds a world record, didn’t need the Aug. 3 ceremony at the Rio games to remember the tragedy. He was there, forced to flee the dorms where the Palestinian terrorists held his teammates hostage.
“I remember everything that happened in Munich. I don’t need special memorial services to remind me,” said Ladany, who watched clips of the ceremony on the TV news. “What the [Rio] event did, though, was to mark the IOC’s recognizing that this was part of the Olympic movement and that the Israelis and others must be remembered.”
He added: “Anyone with a head on his shoulders, and especially Israelis who were there, wanted this [commemoration] very much.”
The ceremony, held two days before the Olympics opened in Rio, culminated a 44-year struggle by victims’ families to attain official recognition of their loved ones.
“I think a big reason for that [breakthrough] is that the president of the Olympic movement is German, and he understands his obligation,” Ladany said of Thomas Bach, adding that he hopes such commemorations are held at every Olympics.
Even before Munich, Ladany was no stranger to survival, having made it through the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War II as an 8-year-old.
Yet at 80 he’s still going strong, competing in long walk races and swimming events.
In September, he will participate for the 55th year in a 2 1/2-mile swim in the Sea of Galilee – a number he thinks has been exceeded by only three people. And in November, Ladany plans to compete in a 20-mile walking marathon in the Jezreel Valley.
“I’ll be the oldest one there, of course,” said Ladany, a professor emeritus in industrial engineering at nearby Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who isn’t shy about speaking.
This summer he participated in two four-day, 84-mile walk races in the Netherlands. He competed for the 23rd time in the one held in Nijmegen, which Ladany calls “the greatest walking carnival in the world.”
In 2012, he interrupted a speaking tour in Canada to return to Israel long enough to make the Galilee swim, then flew back to resume his talks.
“Only a crazy, sports-minded person would do it,” said Ladany, sitting in his living room across from his wife Shoshana, 82, in an interview at his home in this Beersheba suburb.
Ladany, adjusting his enormous eyeglass frames, jokes that training for each Galilee swim consists of his previous year’s participation.
“I’ll tell you something about long-distance competition: Everyone – runners, cyclists, race walkers – don’t enjoy making the effort,” he said. “They enjoy the finishing. That’s the happiness: that you were able to make it.”
Ladany’s been at racewalking for more than a half-century, ever since he participated in a four-day recreational event as a Hebrew University of Jerusalem student and realized that many runners lagged behind his walking.
His feet would convey Ladany to the still-standing world record in the 50-mile race walk (7:23:50), set four decades ago in New Jersey, and to five Maccabiah gold medals in four distances: 3-, 10-, 20- and 50-kilometers. In addition to the 1972 games, he was an Olympian in 1968 in Mexico City at age 32.
During the Munich games, he was staying along with most of the Israeli delegation in the Olympic Village, at Connollystrasse 31. When members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September broke into his teammates’ rooms on the September morning, he was able to dash to safety.
Correcting the historical record that claims he jumped to safety from a second-floor balcony, Ladany told JTA that he was on the first floor and stepped on the terrace and continued away to safety. He said two other Israelis fled serpentine-style to avoid being shot.
He has a theory for why the terrorists who invaded apartments 1 and 3 bypassed his duplex in apartment 2: His five suite mates included competitive sharpshooters Henry Hershkowitz and Zelig Stroch. All survived.
Ladany sees his Munich teammates at the annual commemoration in Tel Aviv of the murders. He recently had his watch repaired by Hershkowitz, a watchmaker.
Some three decades before his second Olympics, Ladany and his parents fled their native Belgrade, Yugoslavia, to Hungary following the Nazi invasion in 1941. They were deported to Bergen-Belsen, then freed in a December 1944 prisoner exchange and sent to Switzerland before returning to Belgrade.
In 1948, the family immigrated to Israel along with Ladany’s orphaned first cousin, Martha Flattow, who was raised as his sister and now lives in Rishon Lezion. The Ladanys’ daughter and three grandchildren reside in Reut, near Modiin.
“Maybe the events of my life shaped my character. I don’t know,” Ladany said.
He says that among the most profound utterances he has ever heard was the day his father dropped him off at the Israeli army induction center in 1954. Ladany recalls his dad telling him: “The honor has accrued to you to serve the Jewish state.” Ladany would repeat the phrase when his daughter was drafted.
On this morning, even though he has just 20 minutes before a department-wide event at his university, Ladany indulges a visitor’s approach to wall-length display cases packed with trophies and medallions. The octogenarian flicks on a backlight, the better for his accomplishments to be appreciated.
Athletic hardware isn’t all he stockpiles; Ladany is an inveterate collector. In fact, he notes matter-of-factly, he maintains 200 different collections, from what he calls the “esoteric and nonvaluable” (restaurant napkins and business cards) to the highly significant (Maccabiah posters, historical Jewish National Fund collection boxes, documents about Bergen-Belsen). He is one of the world’s leading collectors of items related to modern Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl: 1,000 pieces, including 400 postcards.
On the inside of the home’s front door hangs a 1932 poster from the inaugural Maccabiah – “I believe I’m the most knowledgeable person in the world about the first Maccabiah,” he states unabashedly – and, above it, a poster consisting of images of each delegate to the First Zionist Congress in 1897.
The pivotal gathering may have taken place in Basel, Switzerland, but Ladany owns an invitation that designated Munich as the original location. The congress was relocated, he explains, due to a rabbinical dispute.
Now Ladany finally makes it to his garage, dips into his car’s seat and tears down Eucalyptus Street. His leg may no longer be in contact with the ground, but it’s weighing hard on the gas pedal.
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