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Articles > Olympic Notebook, Part 3: A Look Back

In his autobiography, Sippuro shel Adam Pashut (The Story of a Simple Man), one-time head of the Israeli Olympic Committee Haim Wein, wrote of Israel’s first ever Olympic participation, the 1952 Helsinki Games, just four years after Israel came into being. Wein told of an event that speaks to the unique place of Israel as a Jewish state:

During the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, the Israeli delegation decided to organize a “Meeting of the Tribe” to include all the Jews from among the various groups at the Olympics – athletes, journalists, and other team representatives. It was not an easy undertaking, but after a lot of work we were able to make connections with most of the Jews from delegations from the West, who expressed an interest to attend. Our attempts to communicate with Jews from the Communist bloc were unsuccessful.

The gathering took place at the estate of a wealthy local textile industrialist whose family hailed from Austria, where his brother had been a well-known swimmer in the HaKoah Vienna Sports Club in the 20s. All the participants met at the Olympic Village and took a bus to the gathering, a trip of some 50 kilometers (about 33 miles).

In a recent conversation with the Center for Sport and Jewish Life, the Olympic-bound Israeli tennis duo Andy Ram and Jonathan (Yoni) Erlich expressed their opinion that such a meeting would not be likely today. Beyond the security issues that might arise, so much of the athletic experience - for both athletes and committee members - has become professionalized to the extent that there would probably be insufficient interest these days in such a meeting. Additionally, while there are those among the athletes, journalists, and others involved in the Olympics who care about their Jewish identity, there are many others who, while listed as being Jewish, are less inclined to take an active interest in such a meeting, like the athlete whose father is Jewish but whose mother is not, who told a major American Jewish newspaper that his identity is defined much more by his sport than by his religion. (While this is in no way intended as a criticism of the athlete, it does point to the problematics knowing just what it means when an athlete is identified in the media as a Jewish athlete – the best strategy seems to be self-identification.)

Mr. Wein also noted that in 1936, the IOC had extended an invitation to the Olympic Committee of Eretz Yisrael to send a delegation, but the Jewish group replied that it would not participate under the circumstances. Although the infant State attempted to be included in the 1948 Olympics in London, the local organizing committee (perhaps still harboring bitter sentiments over past relations between the UK and the Jewish community bristling under British mandate rule) deemed the young country as not having proven its athletic merit. Thus, 1956 was the first time that Israel appeared on the Olympic stage.

For more on Israeli and Jewish participation in the 2008 Olympics, stay tuned.

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