The Olympic Games don’t formally kick off until Friday night’s opening ceremonies, and already there seem to be as many non-sports story lines as security contractors (more on that in a moment).
North Korean players were introduced with the South Korean flag. Mitt Romney questioned whether organizers were adequately prepared. Iran said it would end a ban on competing against Israel, then the only Iranian athlete who might have faced an Israeli stayed home, citing a sudden stomach infection.
As London prepares to welcome 10,000 athletes, hundreds of thousands of spectators and a worldwide television audience in the billions, the run-up to the 2012 Olympic Games has again proved that politics don’t, as the saying goes, stop at the water’s edge. Nor do they stop at the sand pit.
Greece disqualified one of its athletes, triple jumper Paraskevi Papachristou, on Wednesday after she posted a racist message on Twitter about African immigrants. Papachristou immediately apologized for her “tasteless joke,” while Greece’s far-right and stridently anti-immigrant Golden Dawn party took offense at people taking offense, condemning the decision and posting a picture of the 23-year-old on its website waving the country’s flag.
“It would be more honest to pass a law condemning everybody who has different views to death by stoning,” the party said.
Organizers of the opening ceremonies have used Twitter to their advantage, mounting a social media campaign called #savethesurprise to keep details of the extravagant production – directed by Danny Boyle of the Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” – from leaking to the news media. But one aspect of the event already has become public: an emotional dispute between the International Olympic Committee and the families of the 11 Israeli team members who were killed by Palestinian gunmen 40 years ago at the Olympics in Munich.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has joined the Israeli government and the victims’ families in calling for a moment of silence in their memory Friday night. IOC President Jacques Rogge has denied the request, saying separate memorial events are planned and that the opening ceremonies aren’t an appropriate venue for the tribute.
British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday backed Rogge’s decision, saying, “We’ll be properly marking the anniversary of that tragedy with a special commemoration.” Yet the memory of the Munich massacre can’t have been far from organizers’ minds when they deployed for the coming fortnight what Cameron has called the largest peacetime security operation in British history.
Some 36,000 troops, police and hired contractors will stand guard at Olympic venues and on the streets of London and other cities. After the private security firm G4S acknowledged last week that it wouldn’t be able to furnish all of the 10,000 contractors it had agreed to, British officials called up additional service members to fill the gap.
The foul-up compounded what for many Londoners is beginning to seem like a long, costly summer, which began with a lavish diamond jubilee for Queen Elizabeth II and has coincided with ever bleaker economic news: The Office for National Statistics reported Wednesday that the economy had shrunk by 0.7 percent from April to June, a far worse contraction than had been forecast, deepening a double-dip recession that’s the severest in decades.
Meanwhile, the cost of staging the games has risen to several times the initial projection, exceeding even the infamous budget-busting standards of the 1996 Atlanta games. London’s now are expected to end up as the most expensive ever, at a cost of more than $14 billion.
“This is a time of some economic difficulty for the nation; everyone knows that. But look at what we’re capable of achieving even at a difficult economic time,” Cameron said Thursday near the new Olympic Stadium. “Look at this extraordinary Olympic Park, built from nothing in seven years.”
British officials are doubtless impatient for the focus finally to turn to the athletes. But the controversies aren’t likely to end when the games begin.
Competition got under way Wednesday, but a women’s soccer match that involved Colombia and North Korea was delayed by an hour after North Korean players were introduced on a video with their faces next to the South Korean flag.
The BBC reported that the rather dramatic mix-up – the neighboring countries are still technically at war, having never signed a treaty after a cease-fire took effect in the 1950s Korean conflict – occurred at the studio that produced the pregame video. The Christian Science Monitor pronounced it perhaps the worst blunder by a host nation in the Olympics’ 116-year modern history.
Rogge apologized on behalf of the organizers, saying, “This was a most unfortunate incident. I can assure you the organizing committee has taken corrective action so that this will not happen in the future.”
That’s not the only old political wound to be ripped open. Officials from Ukraine complained after Russian athletes who were born there during the Soviet era – when now-independent Ukraine was a Soviet republic – were listed on the Olympic website as having been born in the “Ukraine region.” A newspaper in Kiev angrily accused the Russian Olympic Committee of trying to reannex Ukraine.
Iran appeared to be taking no chances of a potentially explosive in-match confrontation after a judo competitor, Javad Mahjoub, missed the plane to London, citing a gastric infection. The claim was immediately suspicious because Iran is among the countries that often refuse to compete against Israel as a political statement. Mahjoub was the only Iranian athlete who was entered in the same competition as an Israeli, and he’d been quoted before as saying he’d thrown matches at previous competitions to avoid facing an Israeli competitor.
Last month the Iranian sports minister, Mohammad Abbasi, told the Islamic Republic News Agency that “not competing with the Zionist athletes is one of the values and prides of the Iranian athletes and nation.”
Tensions figure to ease as the two-week competition settles in, but some Olympic watchers already have circled Aug. 3: the first round of men’s table tennis, which pits North Korea against South Korea. At least the flags should be right this time.