Monday, July 23, 2012

60 Years Since Israel's First Olympic Appearance -- and a Government Inquiry into its Performance

Remember that part in the movie Airplane where the old woman asks the stewardess for something light to read and gets a pamphlet entitled "Jewish Sports Legends"? Well, the coming London Olympics marks the 60th anniversary of Israel's first appearance in the Games, an event that added some substance to the annals of Jewish athleticism. A good description of the debut Israeli team in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics appeared in Israel Hayom last week (in Hebrew).

That first appearance was followed by another kind of Israeli sport, so to speak - a Committee of Inquiry. Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, influenced by an uproar in the Israeli media over the (under)performance of the Israeli delegation (consider this article entitled in Hebrew "These are the transgressions of Helsinki" - a deliberate evocation of the condemnations of the biblical Prophet Amos), launched the committee to evaluate the performance of the Israeli team and its relations with the Jewish community in Helsinki.

The committee concluded that the overall performance of the delegation had been satisfactory, considering the fact that it was Israel's first Olympic Games and that out of the 70 delegations that competed, only 30 countries won medals. Israel's failure to do so, then, was not exceptional. The committee recommended more government investment in sports education in Israel, including the training of more athletic instructors at the newly-founded Wingate Institute, Israel's sports college. The Israel Olympic committee later published a communique regarding the findings of the Committee of Inquiry (which you can read in Hebrew).

This post has an interesting real-world backstory: the original idea for it came after we provided the Prime Minister's office with the two documents mentioned above (the Committee of Inquiry's report and the Israel Olympic committee's communique) for reference during Prime Minister Netanyahu's meeting with this year's Israeli Olympic team. We convinced the Prime Minister's press office that the story of Israel establishing a Committee of Inquiry after an Olympics would make for a fun anecdote. The Prime Minister evidently agreed, as those of you who can follow the Hebrew can see here a minute into his remarks to the team.

By the way, you may be wondering why Israel only first competed in the Olympics in 1952, and not 1948. In 1948, as in 2012, the Games were held in London. Israel, however, was barred from participating due to the assertion of the British Foreign Office that "as the state of Palestine does not exist any more, you have no right to participate." The Israeli Olympic Commission tried to convince the Israeli Foreign Ministry to intervene, but Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett believed that the time was not right for a diplomatic effort on this matter. With the recent row between Israel and the BBC over the broadcaster failing to acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel's capital, it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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