IF EVER there's a time to suspend cynicism, it's at an Olympic Games opening ceremony. Last Friday night, as athletes from 204 countries paraded through London's Olympic Stadium, each wearing a gold medal smile, the world was undeniably a better, more connected place. The so-called Olympic spirit—bridging cultural divides, divorcing politics from sports, using competition to achieve greater understanding—was in full effect.
But even here, at this pageant of international amity, the real world intruded. The thousands of participating athletes proceeded alphabetically by country, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. That was good for the sake of keeping order, but it made for some awkward juxtapositions, especially in the I's.
With only Ireland as a buffer, the delegations from Iran and Iraq lined up just ahead of Israel, whose athletes some of the Iranians and Iraqis might refuse to compete against if given the chance. The Israeli team was protected by an extra security detail after a terrorist attack against Israeli tourists in Bulgaria the previous week. Nevertheless the delegation received a rousing ovation, at least in part from Jewish fans.
Such is the fate of the Israeli athlete. "Representing Israel is wonderful, but it's a whole different experience," says Andy Ram, a tennis player competing in his third Olympics. "You're a sportsman, but sometimes you're also a diplomat."
With a landmass smaller than New Hampshire's and a population less than Virginia's, Israel has a disproportionate role in geopolitics and diplomacy that's reflected at the Olympics. Israel might have won only a single gold medal in its history—windsurfer Gal Fridman's in 2004—but it receives outsized attention, caught as it so often is in the crossfire of political, cultural and social battles. Before the torch even made it to London, Israel had become an Olympic cause célèbre on issues ranging from the serious to the absurd.
• In a letter to IOC president Jacques Rogge in March 2011, the head of Iran's Olympic committee threatened to boycott the Games, asserting that the 2012 logo spelled out Zion and was "racist." (The IOC dismissed this as nonsense.)
• Over the past year, at various international competitions and qualifications, athletes from multiple Arab countries have forfeited rather than compete against Israelis. In a firm preemptive statement in June, the IOC declared that refusing to compete against a fellow athlete because of nationality or religion is a "serious breach" of the Olympic code of ethics.
• After the July 18 suicide attack on a tour bus in Bulgaria's Black Sea resort of Burgas killed five Israelis, Scotland Yard reportedly raised the threat assessment against the Israeli delegation in London. The Israeli government dispatched agents from its internal security service to bolster the protection of Israeli athletes.
Such precautions inevitably triggered memories of the 1972 Munich Olympics and dovetailed with still another controversy surrounding the London Games. Ankie Spitzer, widow of Israeli fencing coach Andrei Spitzer, requested an official moment of silent remembrance at the opening ceremony for her husband and the 10 other Israeli athletes and coaches killed by Palestinian terrorists in Munich four decades ago. She had made this request before every Olympics since the 1976 Summer Games; each time she was rebuffed. "[In 1976] they told us very clearly, 'There are 21 Arab delegations that will leave if we say something about the Israeli athletes,' " Spitzer says.
From her home near Tel Aviv, Spitzer tried appealing to the IOC again this year. This time the U.S., Australia and Germany endorsed recognizing the Munich tragedy, and last week both President Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney announced that they favored Spitzer's campaign. An online petition supporting the moment of silence—TELL THE INTERNATIONAL OLYMPIC COMMITTEE: 40 YEARS IS ENOUGH!—garnered more than 100,000 signatures.