So far, it has been a long and strange Olympics for Jewish spectators. No doubt there has been the thrill and the beauty of watching Needham’s own Aly Raisman win all-around team gold and an individual silver medal for gymnastics. Raisman first made the Boston Jewish community proud in the 2012 Olympics when she won gold for her floor exercise to the tune of “Hava Nagila.” She transformed the song from a cliché to an anthem. But more important, in a moment when she had the world’s attention, she opted to connect further to her Jewish identity by commemorating the 11 Israeli athletes murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
Forty-four years later, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) finally recognized the slain Israeli athletes in a memorial ceremony ahead of the games. The ceremony, which took place in a designated “Place of Mourning” in the Olympic Village in Rio, was a long time coming. Ilana Romano, a widow of one of the murdered athletes, told The Jerusalem Post: “This is an extremely emotional moment for us, one we have been waiting for since 1972. Our patience finally paid off. The memory of the 11 Munich victims has finally been acknowledged by the IOC.”
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) also reported that the Brazilian Olympic Committee and the Olympic Committee of Israel, along with members of Rio’s Jewish community, paid tribute to the fallen athletes Sunday evening at Rio City Hall. Israel’s culture and sports minister, Miri Regev, was in attendance. “When we fight against terror, we look for peace,” she said, according to the JTA. “We still see discrimination against the Israeli athletes. There are countries that deny visas to competitors. We know that mixing sports and politics is against the IOC protocol and contrary to the Olympic spirit. Sport must bring people together.”
As an American Jew, I’m reminded of how difficult and sometimes demoralizing it can be to be an Israeli competitor in these games. The glorious opening ceremony is always an emotional spectacle for me. I am teary when I watch athletes from countries with messy, bloody histories put aside politics to don beautiful, colorful and patriotic regalia. This parade of nations brings out a poignant choreography not replicated anywhere else in the world.
But my positive feelings were undermined this year when I read that the Lebanese delegation would not share a bus ride to the Maracaña Stadium with the Israeli Olympians. According to an Associated Press report, the head of the Lebanese delegation, Salim Haj Nicola, physically blocked the Israelis from boarding the bus. The two sides differ over motives. Haj Nicola told an Arab newspaper that he had the right to keep the Israelis off of a transport for his team. However, in a statement to the Associated Press, Gili Lustig, head of Israel’s delegation, said the Lebanese team “contradicted the Olympic Charter.” In the end, Haj Nicola saw the incident as “only a small problem.”
But later in the week similarly small problems continued for Israeli athletes. An Israeli television station reported that Joud Fahmy from Saudi Arabia deliberately forfeited her first-round judo match to avoid facing her Israeli competitor Gili Cohen. Saudi Arabia countered the story in a tweet that said Fahmy was injured and could not compete. The move, which comes from a country that does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, is suspect to me.
Yet even Egypt, a country that has diplomatic relations with Israel, seems to back away from acknowledging the Jewish state. In men’s judo, Or Sasson of Israel defeated Egyptian Islam El Shehaby in the heaviest weight class. El Shehaby broke with protocol when he barely acknowledged his Israeli opponent with a brief bow and refused to shake Sasson’s extended hand. According to a report in The Forward, El Shehaby was pressured on social media to skip the match. He was told: “You dishonor Islam if you lose to Israel. How can you cooperate with a killer?”
As disheartening as these incidents are, there is a tinge of Jewish optimism that shines through in these games. In the delightful category of “everyone is a little Jewish” come some heartening stories. According to an article in The Forward with the headline “The Secret Jewish History of Rio Gold Medalist Katie Ledecky,” the champion swimmer credits much of her success to her steadfast faith. But Ledecky, who says a Hail Mary before each race, has also been influenced by her Jewish grandmother, Berta Ledecky. In 2007, when Katie was just 10 years old, her grandmother took her and her older brother to her native Prague, where, according to The Forward, they visited a memorial that listed the names of family members who had been lost in the Holocaust.
French swimmer Fabien Gilot also carries the history of the Holocaust with him. Tattooed on the inside of his left arm in Hebrew letters is the phrase “Ani klum biladeihem” (“I am nothing without them”). The words are meant to commemorate the memory of his step-grandfather, Max Goldschmidt, a survivor of Auschwitz, who was a hero to Gilot. Gilot, who is not Jewish, won gold in the 2012 Games and was part of the French team that won silver in this week’s 4×100-meter relay race.
Perhaps the most amusing Jewish-influenced story to come out of these Olympic Games is Michael Phelps’ cupping therapy. Phelps and other athletes were spotted with purple circles on their shoulders and backs. It turns out that heated cups were directly applied to loosen up sore muscles. According to an article in Haaretz, the practice has Jewish roots in a folk remedy called bankes. In the old days, bankes was used to suck out disease and any other malevolent spirits that caused illness.
One of the best Olympic moments for me, in which worlds gently intersected, was when I watched fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American athlete to wear a hijab during the Olympics, smile and wave to the crowd from that ever-magical parade of nations.