There were two particularly distressing events in international sports last week. The first was the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, which was on its way to the stadium in Lahore, Pakistan to play the host country’s national team.
The second was the decision by Sweden to play its Davis Cup match against Israel without any fans in the arena because of security concerns.
The tragedy in Pakistan was the worst attack on athletes since Black September terrorists murdered 11 Israeli Olympians at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Miraculously, while six Sri Lankan players were wounded or injured in the attack, none were killed, though eight people, including six policeman, died in the assault.
Still, nobody would admit to being surprised that such a breach of security could take place in Pakistan. Other national cricket teams have refused to play there, citing exactly that fear. The willingness of Sri Lanka to undertake the match was a remarkable gesture between neighboring nations where cricket is embraced with religious fervor.
We may never know whether the inadequate security represented anything more than incompetence. But it is a reminder that even in a world already scarred by terror, attacks on athletes resonate in uncommon fashion. While these athletes should be no different than kids in a café, office workers in a tower or tourists in a hotel, they remain symbols of a country’s youth, vigor as well as its core values. Thus an attack on them feels like the paramount insult. Which is perhaps why, in the wake of Munich, Israel chose not to retaliate in familiar broad strokes, but to pursue a course of highly personal revenge (a response dramatized by Steven Spielberg in his 2005 film Munich).
While the attack in Pakistan was horrific, it was also sadly familiar. The events in Sweden, however, were quite unusual. Ever since Munich, with the Olympics taking the lead, the international sports community has gone to great lengths to protect athletes of all nations. But by competing against Israel in an empty arena, Sweden was indicating either that it couldn’t protect the Israeli team or that it was unwilling to pay the price — both financial and political — to fulfill that responsibility.
Certainly, that task would have been challenging and costly, as it proved to be anyway. Thousands of protestors thronged the streets in Malmo, site of the match, and an estimated 100 masked demonstrators assaulted police with stones, firecrackers and paintballs. As one self-proclaimed “anarchist” explained to Agence France-Presse, the demonstration was aimed at those who would “protect the representatives of a repressive occupying force that massacred so many innocent people in Gaza.”
Of course, it was really aimed at the heart of Israel. Creating and isolating a sports pariah has proved an effective weapon in the past, particularly against South Africa in the struggle against apartheid. But that stand represented an international consensus, established through due process among international sports federations.
No such consensus exists regarding Israel or, if it does, nobody has bothered to formalize it. The demonstrators in Sweden must have been thrilled with their efforts and the message it sent the world — that welcoming Israeli teams and athletes just like those of any other nation might just be too much trouble. Israeli tennis player Andy Ram, who was recently granted a visa to play in Dubai following an international outcry when an Israeli woman player was denied entry, called the decision “stupid” and said he feared that the Swedish action would establish a terrible precedent. (Absent the home-crowd advantage, Sweden lost the round-of-16 match by a score of 3-2.)
Israel is apparently now the sole nation whose teams warrant such outrage, whose athletes are indistinguishable from their government. No matter that teams from the world’s most repressive regimes compete in events like the Olympics or soccer’s World Cup without similar indignities. Even in recent years, as the popularity of the United States reached new lows internationally, American teams have been allowed to play abroad without the indignity of the empty stadium.
Sports is hardly the only arena — think writers and cartoonists — in which authorities have been intimidated by those whose protests are the loudest and whose threats the most virulent. But it is an abandonment of the promise of Munich to treat Israel’s athletes in such singular fashion. In Pakistan, it is the hosts who are rightly being blamed. But in Sweden, the visitors are blamed for bringing this down on themselves.
Israel’s Davis Cup team is unlikely to face this problem again, at least not this season. It will host the quarterfinal match against a strong Russian team. But Israel’s soccer team — undefeated in four group matches and one point out of first place — is in contention for a World Cup berth. And a home-and-home series against frontrunner Greece is imminent, with Israel hosting in Tel Aviv on March 28 and, a few days later, traveling to Athens for the rematch.
Security is a far more complicated affair in Greece than in Sweden. But Greece has demonstrated that it can muster the requisite effort to ensure that the games go on, as it did for the 2004 Olympics there. Hopefully, Greece is willing to accept this challenge once more — not just for Israel, but for all sport.
More GlobalPost dispatches by Mark Starr:
Baseball's Olympic banishment