Siddharth Saxena, New Delhi

The Hindustan Times (September 16, 2001)

When Desmond Morris suggested that sport is a substitute for warfare — a ritualised and disarmed version of inter-tribal conflict — he had probably not bargained for Munich, 1972.

Or the slew of boycotts and pull-outs at the modern Olympics. Or, for that matter, the real story behind the 1978 World Cup.

Blood, sweat and tears. When spilt on the sporting field for sport's sake alone, they help lend romance to the entire endeavour, and in turn, give it its very essence. But when the same happens because of messy politics, sport becomes ugly and tragic.

When the Afro-Asian Games were called off in the wake of the American attacks, it was not the first time that a sporting event had been affected by a terrorist attack, or bad, old world politics. Over the last three decades, before sport was hijacked to remain a spectacle for multinational companies and cash-rich sponsors, it was the perfect political vehicle for warring parties and disagreeing countries.

The Munich Olympics, 1972, come first to mind. Eleven Israeli athletes were taken hostage and two were killed in a daring attack by the PLO terrorist outfit Black September on September 5. German authorities intervened - belatedly it is alleged - and in the ensuing tussle, the remaining nine hostages, five militants and a German policeman were killed in a Munich airport encounter.

Two years later, hosts West Germany met East Germany —neighbours estranged by the diplomacy of war — in a group game at the 1974 FIFA World Cup. There were more policemen than spectators at Munich's Olympic Stadium. Helicopters hovered over the arena well before the start of the game, and remained for the entire two hour period of the drab 1-0 win under pelting rain for the eastern nation.

When Hungary met the Soviet Union in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics’ water polo semi-final, the colour of the water was red at the end of a bloody battle in the pool, which the Magyars won 4-0. A brawl ensued in the changing rooms after the match, and officials and police had to move in before it got bloodier.

The reason: Russia had come down heavily on an anti-Communist uprising in Hungary earlier in the year - which led to widespread killings. It also probably killed off what was arguably the greatest football team ever. A team with the longest unbeaten stint in history, 31 games between 1950 and 1954 - when the Ferenz Puskas-led Magical Magyars was disbanded and had to flee to other parts of Europe to continue plying their magical skills.

The majority of the Magyars team came from the Honved block, the hub of which were army teams, and in the face of the uprising, were caught in a peculiar situation, whether to side with the establishment or the popular movement. They were popular heroes and endorsing the uprising seemed only correct, and they fled when the Soviets moved in to brutally crush it.

While the staging of football World Cups have usually proved ideal propaganda vehicles, the Olympics have been perfect flashpoint areas as far political protest went.

Take the 1936 Berlin Games. It is believed that Hitler and his agenda would not have gone ahead with such single-minded acceleration, had pleas of a boycott by various Jewish sects been heeded by the US and the rest of the West. Instead, as the Jews watched in quiet horror, Berlin 1936 proved to be the perfect propaganda for Hitler's "Clean Germany".

The Western press was treated to a wonderful Olympics and was only chagrined when a black American athlete, shunned till then at home (and later too), was given the cold shoulder by the “racially superior, Aryan” Fuhrer.

In a twisted endorsement of racial inequality and discrimination, Berlin '36 was hailed by the West as the Olympics where the Fuhrer was shown his place by the black athlete, Jesse Owens. What they failed to see however, was how Hitler's ideology had systematically removed sportspersons of Jewish origin from the sporting mainstream in what came to termed as the Nazification of Sport.

At Munich, 36 years later, a Jewish sportsman set a record haul of gold medals that is unparalleled to date. Swimmer Mark Spitz may have won his record eighth gold in 1972 had he not left after the massacre.

Calls for boycott

The era of boycotts began with the 1970s. Montreal 1976 had a host of African nations opt out since the International Olympic Council refused to ban New Zealand for having its All Blacks rugby team tour South Africa and Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia). Taiwan pulled out when Canada, under pressure from trade partner China, refused to allow it to compete as Republic of China.

Around the same time, a more lurid game was being played out in Argentina. Juan Peron was overthrown in a military coup in 1976. The 1978 FIFA World Cup had already been awarded to the South American footballing giant. The military junta headed by General Videla, strove to unite the country with its own methods and tactics — killing about 11,000 subversives. As the world began noticing the’'disappearances', the best way to divert attention and unite a people was to host the World Cup in such a fashion that the world would remember that and nothing else.

It was a worrying time for FIFA and some nations, notably eventual finalists Holland, threatened to boycott the event.

Stadia, gigantic structures of concrete arose simply out of nothing. Roads were built and colour television was introduced. Other projects were put on hold and funds diverted from them for the World Cup.

All this while, the families of those who disappeared protested in vain. In a modern version of the Berlin Olympics, the junta ensured that the team and coach were given the best facilities, since only a World Cup triumph alone could unite a nation. It was nationalism at its worst.

Mario Kempes led Argentina to a crazy victory. The junta's wish was fulfilled. The people rejoiced in the streets, forgetting the ordeal they had been through. But the cost of such a huge endeavour was realised five years later, when the military regime gave way to an elected government.

In the Christmas of 1979, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. A month later US President Jimmy Carter served the USSR an ultimatum. Withdraw its troops in a month, or face a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Neither side relented, and while Canada, Japan, China and West Germany joined the US in pulling out, Russia went ahead with its Games.

True to type and true to the times, the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984 were the first Games in history to actually record a profit. Organising chief Peter Uberroth was Time magazine's Man of the Year for 1984. But LA '84 also suffered the biggest boycott in Olympic history. Led by the USSR and Cuba, 140 countries did not show up for the party.

When IOC chief Juan Antonio Samaranch brought the Games to his Catalan home of Barcelona in 1992, the world had changed. Germany was united, the Communist Bloc had crumbled, and was allowed to participate under one name - Commonwealth of Independent States - for the last time. Capitalism and the United States were kings. Despite the threat of Basque separatists, Samaranch played his cards well, turning attention to a changing Olympic ideal instead, where professional and commercialisation ruled.

Commercialisation was carried to crass levels at the Centennial Games in Atlanta in 1996. Even a bomb blast at the Centennial Olympic Park was drowned in the din of the money machine that the Olympics in particular and the sports world in general was dancing to.

Nachbemerkung: Dikigoros kann nicht jeden Unfug korrigieren, den der gute Siddharth da verzapft hat; nur zwei Punkte:
1. Hitler zeigte Jesse Owens nicht "die kalte Schulter"; vielmehr behandelte er ihn - ganz anders als Roosevelt das tat - ausgesprochen freundlich, nachzulesen in Owens eigenen - ersten - Memoiren; lediglich weil das IOC Hitler verboten hatte, nicht-deutschen Sportlern persönlich zu gratulieren, unterließ Hitler dies.
2. Juan Perón war 1976 längst tot; nicht er wurde damals gestürzt, sondern Isabel Perón; und beide hatten nichts mit der Fußball-WM zu tun.

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