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Sports: When the outside world intrudes

Terror in Lahore. Silence in Sweden. Athletes caught in the middle.

Israel's Harel Levy (L) returns a forehand to Sweden's Thomas Johansson during their first round Davis Cup match in the Baltic Arena in Malmo March 6, 2009. The Davis Cup tournament was played in an empty stadium because Swedish police anticipated protests against the match following the Israeli war in Gaza. (Reuters)

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.