The Olympics


Politics isn’t everything. There’s also sport.

Anyone who’s visited Rome’s Coliseum, or the remains of Greek amphitheaters around the Mediterranean, knows that its capacity to divert has been with us for a long time.

We’ve moved beyond the blood sport of the gladiators. Boxing is losing its popularity. Dog fighting and cock fighting are underground. Wrestling is more theater than sport. American football and North American hockey are about as bloody as they get, with football on the agenda of those who worry about the damage to knees and brains.

Current attention is on Brazil, and the problems associated with its extravaganza. This may be the most doubtful investment in sport since the Athens Olympics contributed its financial disaster and debts that threatened Greece and the European Union. Among the problems already apparent this year are the spread of an unpleasant disease via what is likely to be the sexual activity of athletes and spectators, and however the splendor affects an always shaky imbalance between beauty, wealth, and poverty close to the venues being highlighted.

Massive police and military presence may keep the sports site and nearby areas safe from people whose needs are greater than those who are visiting. The booing at the temporary president’s welcoming speech indicates that it is not only the dispossessed of the country who are upset at corruption alongside extravagance. 

Pausing war for the sake of sport is an admirable tradition associated with the Olympics, but it didn’t work for the Israelis killed at Munich in 1972. And already this year the principle didn’t keep Lebanon’s team from refusing to ride in the same bus with the Israeli team, or keep the Olympic organizers from giving in to the Lebanese and deciding that it would be the Israelis who traveled on another bus. 

An undoubted benefit of sport is its opportunity for talented poor kids to escape from their ghettos. It was a road taken by Jews and other immigrants in the early part of the 20th century, and since then by African Americans with the right combinations of size and coordination.

The downside of this benefit is also impressive. It appears in the resources spent on courts, stadiums, and coaches that might have been spent on better education, as well as the dismal record of coddled students with athletic scholarships who graduate from college nearly illiterate, show high rates of not graduating, and go back to the ghetto when they are not good enough for the major leagues.

Somewhere in the balance of sport vs. other things are the quarrels about allocation whenever a city’s elites contemplate putting it on the map with a big league team, or a new stadium.

Democracy being what it is, there is no easy answer to these reservations. Lots of people like sport, its vicarious thrills, and the boost of dressing oneself and the kids in team colors.

Yet some of the most corrupt of politics is that which determines which city will get the next nod of the committees that award the site of the Olympics, and other major events.

There is also the violence associated with sport, most notably the hooliganism associated with non-American football (i.e., soccer).

Israel’s variety of football hooliganism is most often associated with intemperate Jews who taunt Arab players,on largely Jewish teams, or the Arab and Jewish supporters of teams that are mostly Jewish and Arab who chant insults against one another, and must be kept apart by an augmented team of police.

A recent arrest of one Jerusalem team’s supporters, an especially violent and racist group that calls itself La Familia, points to fierce inter-Jewish enmity. Those arrested had acquired illegal weapons and explosives, and are accused of planning to kill supporters of a rival Tel Aviv team.

Fair disclosure being what it is, I must admit teenage pride is my high school’s prowess in sport. Yet that dimmed quickly after I began on scholarship at a good college, and encountered peers who had been exposed to material that made me aware of deficiencies back home

It was during the introductory course in politics and an assignment to write a paper on my Congressional District when I discovered that 30 percent of my hometown peers had not finished high school, and that the average adult in town had only eight years of schooling. That was my first step toward The United States: A Study of a Development Country, which I published two decades later.

My sport had been baseball, and I remain an outsider at Israeli discussions about football. There was a time I could argue with friends about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the starting lineups in 16 teams of both major leagues. High points in my life were outings to Braves Field and Fenway Park. 

It’s been some time since I could name the cities with a major league baseball team. I recall that the Braves are still in Atlanta, and some other team is in Milwaukee, but I’m not sure.

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