July 28, 2005

On the Olympics and Terrorism

Following indignant words from the paladins of the Olympic movement, after a little mournful Beethoven, the Games of Munich went on. It's an article of faith that The Games Must Go On. For the 30 years since, the Olympics — indeed, all sports events of any great scale — have carried on, even if permanently altered by the awareness that terrorists could again strike.
— Alexander Wolff, "When the Terror Began," Time, 2002.

Let me tell you a personal story.

In 1996, I competed at the summer Olympics in Atlanta. In the wee hours of Saturday, July 27, about halfway through those games, a bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park, killing one person and injuring more than one hundred others.

I'm happy to report that my own part in this story was not all that exciting, since my brother and I were a safe distance away, and my sister, my parents, and my fiancée had not yet arrived in Atlanta. Of course, the Games went on. Nevertheless, it did have a sobering effect on what was otherwise one of the greatest experiences of my life. I had friends on the Canadian Olympic team who were not such a safe distance away. My family did go to Olympic Park during their visit, and I did eventually go to Atlanta, and the shadow of that bombing was never completely wiped away.

We did all feel a lot safer after a few days, though, when the press leaked the story that an Olympic Park security guard was the prime suspect. Of course, that sense of security was based on a falsehood, since it turned out that Richard Jewell was innocent. Unfortunately for him, he wan't publicly cleared until October, and he has never really recovered from the accusations — yet another victim of the Olympic bombing.

The real culprit was an American anti-abortion terrorist named Eric Rudolph. Rudolph was back in the news this spring. In April he reached a plea bargain over the Olympic bomb and three others, escaping the death penalty as a reward for his confession. He's now serving four consecutive life sentences, without possibility of parole.

Now Eric Rudolph may be evil, but he is certainly no genius, as you can quickly see if you read his manifesto. The description of events leading up to the Olympic bombing is particularly infuriating. This self-described "warrior" was too cowardly to provide the necessary warning to the authorities. Innocent bystanders were killed or injured because of his weakness and lack of planning, not because of any intelligence on his part. (As a side effect of this cowardice, he also failed to propagate his hateful message, thereby rendering the attack completely pointless even in his own deranged value system.)

Prior to Eric Rudolph's botched but deadly attempt at disrupting the 1996 games, there had been only one other serious terrorist attack at the Olympics: the kidnapping and murder of 11 Israelis by the Palestinian group Black September on September 5 and 6, 1972. Alexander Wolff's Time article "When the Terror Began" (quoted and linked above) gives a gripping account of the attack, and a fascinating historical look at the security preparations that surround the Olympic games.

Like Rudolph's 1996 attack, the 1972 attack was not really directed at the Olympic games. Although it is clear in both cases that the terrorists had little sympathy for the Olympic movement, the games served mainly to heighten worldwide publicity about the attacks. Unlike Rudolph's half-baked paranoid delusion, however, the Black September operation was fully planned and rehearsed, well financed, and executed by suicidal fanatics. In the end, there were no survivors. All eleven Israeli athletes and coaches were killed, along with all five of the terrorists and one German police officer. (Israel later hunted down eleven more terrorists in retaliation, an operation which will be the subject of Steven Spielberg's next movie.) The 1972 attack was the deadliest act of Olympic terrorism ever.

Or was it? What about the recent events in London? The deadly train and bus bombings of July 7, which killed 52 people and injured more than 700, were set off the morning after London won the right to host the 2012 Olympics. Most commentators are playing that down as a coincidence, speculating that the bombings were actually linked to the G8 summit starting in Scotland that day. Sean at sportsBabel presents an alternative possibility, however:

Is it not at least possible that this is related to London winning the rights to host the 2012 Olympics? That terrorist cells were poised in each of the five finalist cities, each ready to detonate the opening volley in the second battle of what Baudrillard considers to be World War 4? Each ready to deliver this semiotic payload: You are not safe here … We are coming after the globalized Olympic spectacle … Sponsors be warned. That London was ultimately successful in winning the bid … while all eyes were on Geldof and the G8ers rocking the free world not far down the road, is sheer providence for the terrorists in this hypothetical scenario, since the televisual politics has everyone looking in the wrong direction for the "reason" why.

Could this be true? And if so, are we going to see more and more attacks directed at the Olympics? Are we seeing that already? A few weeks before the IOC decision, the Basque separatist group Eta set off a bomb of their own at one of the proposed Olympic venues in Madrid. In Greece, there have been three bombs in the last eight months, specifically targeting construction companies that profited from the 2004 Olympics.

If this is more than a coincidence, then we are seeing a new and frightening development: attacks that are are primarily directed at damaging the Olympic games. Are the Olympic games becoming a new front in this growing war?

1 comment:

Sean said...

Along a slightly different line of "symbolic warfare", but don't forget Greenpeace vs. Coca-Cola at Sydney 2000. It is the "theatre of operations" that is important in this case.