ATLANTA BOMB: An ideal at odds with the real world

The Games; The Olympics were founded on a simple concept: all peoples united by sport. Ken Jones reports on the troubled dream
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The bomb that rocked Atlanta Centennial Olympic Park early yesterday, killing two people and injuring many others, was a brutal reminder that the modern history of the Games is scarred by murder and political manipulation.

Along with accelerating developments in telecommunication that raised the Olympics to an event of huge international significance, came opportunities for ideological protest, terrorist activity and psychopathic exhibitionism.

On the verge of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City police opened fire on students who were seeking to further their cause in the presence of the world's media. An official death roll of 35 cynically concealed the true extent of the carnage. For months afterwards anguished parents appealed in vain for news of demonstrators who were never seen again. It is now thought that as many as 300 students died.

The Games went ahead, but not without controversy. On the victory podium, the American athletes Tommy Carlos and John Smith raised gloved hands in a demonstration of black power. The ideals put forth by the founder of the modern games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, had all but vanished.

A sense of impending catastrophe, lost on the International Olympic Committee, was realised dreadfully in Munich four years later.

On 5 September 1972, eight Arab terrorists broke into the quarters of the Israeli team. Two Israelis were killed immediately, and another nine taken hostage. All of them died, along with some of the terrorists, in an abortive rescue attempt at the airport.

However, the deaths were not enough to cause more than a temporary suspension of competition. To the disgust of many, the Games went ahead following a memorial service which was sullied by the blatantly subjective posturing of the IOC's then president, Avery Brundage, who gave more emphasis to rejecting political intrusion than honouring the dead.

It was only last autumn, after years of pressure from Germany's Central Council of Jews, that the German Olympic Committee admitted that the victims had died as the result of terrorist action.

By the time of the 1976 Games in Montreal security was intense and the competition saw the first mass boycott. Resenting the racial implication raised by a rugby tour of South Africa by New Zealand, most of the African countries withdrew their athletes in protest.

The 1980 Games in Moscow came under threat in December 1979 following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Much of the non-Communist world, led by the United States, tried to impose a boycott. The most important absentees were the US, The Federal Republic of Germany and Japan. But, despite Margaret Thatcher's attempt to whip up support for the initiative, Great Britian took part. "I have trained four years for this," the shot- putter Geoff Capes said. "What happens in Afghanistan is not my concern."

With the Games growing ever larger, the Soviet Union retaliated by pulling out of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. This decision was taken, the Soviets claimed, because of unwarranted political interference by the US government and threats to the security of Soviet athletes and officials. Of the communist countries, only the Romanians competed.

The 1988 Olympics in Seoul was seen as a triumph of conciliation for the IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch. If the major impact was made by the scandal of Ben Johnson's disqualification for drug abuse after winning the 100m in record time, nearly all the nations showed up.

If commercialism had become rampant in Barcelona four years ago, the Games given over to sponsorship and the new professionalism, order seemed to have been fully restored, and the threat of attacks by Basque dissidents failed to materialise.

Here in Atlanta hopes were high. Iraq marched peacefully alongside its arch enemy Iran in the opening ceremony. Representatives of the Israeli and Palestinian delegations have discussed keeping the Middle East peace process alive. "The atmosphere here is very special in that it brings together people from all races, colours and political outlook," Ephraim Zinger of Israel told The Washington Post.

"We both agreed that we should try to use these Games to create some kind of leverage that would help overcome the barriers between our peoples in real life."

Muammar Bississo of the Palestine authority added that he thinks the Olympics can be used to improve politics among nations. "We wanted to set a good tone in being photographed together at the ceremony," he said. "If the United States and China can reach an agreement through table tennis why can't we do the same thing between Israelis and Palestinians at the Olympics?"

Of course, the inevitable hair-trigger response to yesterday's explosion did not immediately allow for the possibility that a crude device was planted by a person of unsound mind. If so, it is just another of the hazards that go with staging an event of this magnitude.

Games reports, pages 28-32