James Lawton: In the face of terror, the games we love must know their place

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The Independent Online

The bombs did not snuff out the Olympic flame of London yesterday but they did remind us that even at its most thrilling, sport will be always be just a heart-stop away from magnificent triviality.

This is the ultimate inhibitor on all those of us who most strenuously celebrate the games we watch and play. It was applied in Heysel and Hillsborough, in the rings where boxers die or are irreparably maimed and, in the closest parallel to the despair and confusion that dropped hawk-like yesterday on the streets of a still jubilant city, in the athletes' village in Munich, which was invaded by the terrorists of Black September 33 years ago.

Even at this distance, the images of Munich, with the police snipers angling for position and the ski-masked captors caught in the catastrophic course of events that would see them slaughter their Israeli prisoners at the airport, most cruelly define the vulnerability of sport.

The shock of Munich could not of course be enforced today. The illusion that sport is an island of its own - untouchable and aloof - has been swept aside too many times since 1972 to support the idea.

Pre-Munich was pre-security, pre-fear, pre-doubt that something like the Olympics would be a natural target for those who wanted to pervert its mass appeal into a tool of terror. In fact, we can presume that yesterday's attack had more to do with the G8 meeting than the awarding of the Olympics to London, but the coincidence and the message was savage. Extreme vigilance has to be parcelled along with any surge of celebration.

That is the nature of all life, including the sporting one today, and the recall of Munich is most relevant in what it says about the extent to which we have had to change.

When the Ryder Cup was abandoned in the wake of 9/11, there was no more than a rustle of disquiet from those who believed that it was a surrender to the terrorists rather than a gracious invitation. Most believed that sport as a metaphor for the forces of anti-terrorism was clumsily inappropriate. Yes, life had to go on, but there was no obligation not to pause.

Such a view was alien to the sporting conscience when the Israeli athletes were put to death at Munich airport and the head of the Olympic movement, the American plutocrat Avery Brundage, ordered that the show must go on - as it had four years earlier when, despite the main square of Mexico City running with the blood of protesting students, the Olympics sailed on.

One of the athletes ordered to compete in Munich, against her deepest instincts, was Debbie Brill, a young Canadian high jumper who would later hold the world record. She is still haunted by what she saw as an abandonment of human values, of any sense that sport was not separate from real life.

She recalls: "Brundage told the athletes that life was all about overcoming hurdles and the fallen Israeli athletes would have wanted us to continue. We could not let them down. I said to one of my team-mates, 'God, we're talking about a bunch of dead people...don't let them down, they're fucking dead.'

"I had this overwhelming sense of futility, of being a small person overshadowed by a huge superstructure. The original idea of a bunch of athletes from around the world gathering together to celebrate their youth and their talent and their spirit seemed to have been utterly lost. I saw the Olympics as a great wheel, churning relentlessly. Horrible things could happen but the wheel would keep turning."

When they held the closing ceremony, and sent balloons flying up into the sky, Brill sat on the roof of one of the buildings in the village, numb and disbelieving in the company of some equally disaffected fellow athletes.

Then she went to Munich railway station, bought a ticket for the Italian coast and several litres of wine and lay on a beach for some days. Eventually, she returned to competitive athletics and enjoyed great success. "But I never again," she reports, "mistook winning a medal for something more important than living a real life with real values."

Such a journey would hardly be necessary today. Certainly in London yesterday there was no disposition to be confused about the relative importance of Olympic involvement and well-ordered lives. Nomination as Olympic hosts was an honour and a challenge, and, who knows, maybe a massive complication in the life of the city, but London learned quickly and savagely that it was by no means a panacea.

When the first horror has receded, it might also prove necessary for the capital to recall the self-mocking advice a passionate Scottish football fan, dismayed by the disappointment provoked by his team, once gave to himself. "When you try to get to heaven in a handcart," he mused, "you always have to remember there is a chance that the wheels will fall off."

For London, no doubt that sense of direction and exhilaration, which was lost so shockingly yesterday in the morning rush, will be recovered soon enough. Making a great Olympics, in the end, will be a lot more than a distraction. It will be a test of resilience and nerve. What happened to London yesterday was an onslaught of the kind of reality that we think we are managing well enough until it strikes home with all its force. Sport is cast to the outer limits of experience. Suddenly, it is a fantasy and a luxury not the central force it was proclaimed as by both the points-scoring government and the brilliant creator of the Olympic success, Lord Coe.

Somewhere in between is its proper role, its endless justification. It is something to lift the spirit and inspire the warmest memories of youth. It is something to be celebrated and enjoyed in its time and its role. On other occasions, like yesterday, it has to know its place. It has to take a step back.