The Olympics and Tisha B’Av

[I thought that I would share the sermon that I am offering this evening with you]

Tonight, I would like to talk about two disparate things, the Olympic Games and Tisha B’Av along with what I believe unites them.

Some of my favorite sports memories growing up were from the Olympics. The Miracle on Ice in 1980, when an amateur US team defeated a team from the Soviet Union that included some of the best Hockey players ever to play the game, is probably at the top of the list. I became a rabid fan of ice hockey. For the next decade, my father bought a portion of season tickets and took me to St. Louis Blues games.

I remember well rooting on Carl Lewis and Mary Lou Retton in 1984.

Yet there was the Summer of 1980 also, the year that the United States boycotted the Olympics in Moscow over the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan too. I did not understand. I remember being upset at President Carter. It was not until much later that I realized that the Olympic games were and are today only partly about sports while being significantly about business and politics as well.

As a child in St. Louis, Missouri, I watched 4th of July fireworks on Francis Field at Washington University and spent no little bit of time in Forest Park, places where in 1904 the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, the World’s Fair, and the Third Olympiad were held. It turns out that Chicago was supposed to host the games that year, but the organizers of the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition demanded that the games be a part of the exhibition in St. Louis. They became a very forgetful part.

At those Olympics in 1904, one of the brightest stars was a little remembered man named George Eyser who won six Gold medals in gymnastics even though he had a wooden left leg. Imagine how that story would appear today. Because the Olympics were overwhelmingly overshadowed by the exhibition, the tremendous efforts of one of the greatest para-athletes in history have been almost entirely forgotten.

In the decades that followed, the Olympiads took on more and more of a political tone. The games, instead of reflecting ideals of cooperation while leaving animus aside, tended to be more like the world as it was, reflected in a funhouse mirror, looking a bit distorted from reality, but upon inspection, preserving every detail.

In 1936, the games featured Jessie Owens, but they also featured the Nazi regime hosting a twisted spectacle.

Initially, the Nazis did not wish to allow Blacks or Jews to participate in the games, but relented when threatened with a boycott of the Games by other nations.  In fact, the party removed signs stating “Jews not wanted” and similar slogans from the city’s main tourist attractions. But in an attempt to “clean up” Berlin, the German Ministry of the Interior also authorized the chief of police to arrest all Romani (Gypsies) and keep them in a “special camp,” the Berlin-Marzahn concentration camp.

The United States considered boycotting the Games. Avery Brundage, then of the United States Olympic Committee, opposed a boycott. Brundage argued that politics should play no role in sports, and that they should never be entwined.

Most African-American newspapers supported participation in the Olympics. The Philadelphia Tribune and the Chicago Defender both agreed that black victories would undermine Nazi views of Aryan supremacy and spark renewed African-American pride. American Jewish organizations, meanwhile, largely opposed the Olympics. The American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Labor Committee staged rallies and supported the boycott of German goods to show their disdain for American participation.

In the years that followed, every Olympiad had its share of political problems, but fortunately none like what happened in 1972 on September 5th and 6th in Munich.

At 4:30 am local time on 5 September, midway through the games, as the athletes slept, eight tracksuit-clad members of Black September carrying duffel bags loaded with AKM assault rifles, Tokarev pistols, and grenades scaled a two-meter chain-link fence. They came to the apartments in which the Israeli team was staying and eventually took hostages of which eleven were killed after a failed rescue attempt.

In the wake of the hostage-taking, competition was suspended for the first time in modern Olympic history. On 6 September, a memorial service attended by 80,000 spectators and 3,000 athletes was held in the Olympic Stadium. Then IOC President Avery Brundage, the same man who refused to boycott the games in Berlin 36 years earlier, made little reference to the murdered athletes during a speech praising the strength of the Olympic movement and equating the attack on the Israeli sportsmen with recent arguments about encroaching professionalism and disallowing Rhodesia’s participation in the Games. Referring to Rhodesia, Brundage noted that “The political pressures in sport are becoming unbearable.”

This year we mark the 40th anniversary of the Massacre and many around the world have called for a minute of silence at the opening games in remembrance of the events.  The International Olympic Committee steadfastly refused. Tonight, no few people will stand silently for their own minute of silence in honor of the memory of the fallen and this week many members of the US Congress paused for a minute of silence before they begin their statements on the House floor.

What about Tisha B’Av?

Tomorrow night Tisha B’Av begins. Tisha B’Av is a memorial day to an extreme, a fast day during which Jews remember the major tragedies that have befallen our people including the destruction of the First and Second Temples. However, it so happens that other horrible events occurred on the 9th of Av in Jewish history as well. For example,  July 31st, 1492, the day by which all Jews had to have left Spain was Tisha B’Av.

Tisha B’Av is a day when we read the Book of Lamentations and remember that the world as it is supposed to be is not the way that the world actually is.

We recall the times when we have not lived up to the ideals by which we have pledged to live, the times when our efforts missed the mark and the times when we did not bother to try to hit it. Liturgically, we long for the return to a time of perfection when our people’s relationship with God was pure and intact, yearning for a rebuilding of what has been destroyed, hoping for a rebuilt Jerusalem. Yet, especially those among us who are Reform Jews, we realize that it is not the rebuilding of perfection for which we long, but the creation of something more perfect than we have ever experienced as individuals in our own lives or in the history of our people. We long for that day when all the world will live in peace and prosperity. We long for the creation of a symbolic as well as real Zion unlike any we have experienced, not a rebuilding of a Zion that once was.

This brings me back to the Olympic Games. To an extent, the games are simply about sports. The motto of the Olympics is “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” Yet, there has always been a desire to promote peace and good will among peoples at the Olympics, to rise above conflicts, to promote an ideal. In 1992, a resolution was even passed at the United Nations declaring an Olympic Truce under the premise that individuals compete, not nations, and without the “burden of politics, religion, or racism.” Avery Brundage, first as part of the US Olympic Committee and later as President of the IOC believed that reality should not intrude upon the Olympic ideal.

But think about this for a moment. Do we as individuals ever truly leave behind our biases? Was the Miracle on Ice in 1980 devoid of politics? How about the United States boycott of the Olympics of that same year? Were the 1936 Olympics without political, religious, or racial overtones? Instead of admitting that politics, religious strife, and racism have regularly intruded upon the games and did with tragic results 40 years ago, the leadership of the Olympic committee decided to ignore this fact, better to preserve the ideal than to address the real.

I am reminded of the story of the Tower of Babel. The rabbis say that what was wrong with the building of the Tower of Babel was not that people had the same language or that they were working together, but that building the Tower became more important than the lives of the workers. We find in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 24 that:

If a person were to fall and die, no one would notice him; but if even a single brick were to fall, they would sit and cry, ‘Woe unto us, for when will another brick be brought up in its stead’!

The Olympics are a shining tower. The organizers spend a tremendous amount of energy ensuring their perfection. There are myriads of people who work to ensure that the building blocks fit, that the games are played fairly and well, that the facilities provide an exceptional experience, and that advertising dollars flow in. Taking note of the times when the ideal failed, when people fell from the tower, is not acceptable. Taking note of athletes who cheat and jeopardize the building of the tower itself instead is mandatory. Thus, during the 40th anniversary Olympiad, we will hear many officials discuss violations of rules by athletes and nations and extensive talk of the integrity of the Olympic games, but they will not take a minute to remember the deaths of the eleven Israelis killed in 1972, people who fell from the Tower. We will remember them during Kaddish tonight.

Jesse Owens once said that:

Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust.

And in the Book of Lamentations [4:1] which is read this weekend on Tisha B’Av we find a verse that could not be more appropriate.

How the gold has lost its luster, the fine gold has become dull!

While we certainly strive to meet ideals, to make our world as perfect a place as we can possibly make it, let us not let those ideals blind us to the reality before us and even more so let us not allow ourselves to deliberately ignore imperfections while pretending that the ideal is reality.

This week, we also continue to mourn for the victims killed in Aurora, Colorado, those who have fallen to violence in Syria and attempted genocide in Sudan. We know our world is not perfect, sometimes frighteningly not. We human beings are far from perfect. This weekend as we celebrate the opening of the Olympic Games and mark the fast of the 9th of Av, let us remember our imperfections and our humanity as we seek to become something closer to ideal.

Shabbat Shalom

We Remember

Moshe Weinberg

Yossef Ramano

Ze’ev Friedman

David Berger

Yakov Springer

Eliezer Halfin

Yossef Gutfreund

Kehat Shorr

Mark Slavin

Andre Spitzer

Amitzur Shapira

[Wikipedia was used as a source and the several indented paragraphs concerning the history of the Olympics are paraphrases or summaries of the contents of its articles. Some include additional information or opinion by me.]

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