Ghosts of Olympics past to haunt the stands at Sochi

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Much nervousness has accompanied the upcoming Winter Olympics being hosted in Sochi, Russia, and sadly not all of it is because of worries by athletes about how well they will do in their competitions.  In the aftermath of two major terrorist attacks in Volgograd, apparently at the hands of violent Chechen extremists, the U.S. State Department has issued a travel advisory to all Americans who plan to attend the games, which begin Feb. 6. In response to this concern, Russian President Vladimir Putin has deployed a virtual mini-army of troops and police to protect the athletes and spectators.  

Of course, we hope and pray that the Russian security force, which will be aided by the FBI, will be able to ensure the safety of the athletes. But the fact remains that violence at the games has occurred, not only in the explosive device set off at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, but more tragically at the 1972 Summer Olympics hosted in Munich, West Germany (as it was known at the time).

Early in the 1972 Munich Games, Jewish American swimming star Mark Spitz was on the verge of setting records in gold medals in his sport, and a full team of athletes represented the State of Israel.  Then one horrible morning, the world woke up to the image of ski-mask wearing terrorists from the Black September faction of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, who breached the walls of the Olympic Athletes Village to invade and hold captive the suite housing the Israeli team.  For days, the world’s attention was diverted from the athletic competition to the unfolding drama at the Olympic Village.  When West German police and troops attempted to rescue the hostages, the Black September terrorists set off hand grenades, killing all 11 Israeli athletes and themselves.

Jews all over the world mourned the loss of the Israeli athletes, whose names were added to the yahrzeit and memorial rosters of synagogues and temples everywhere, including St. Louis.  At Congregation Shaare Emeth, the late Rabbi Avi Levine, then an associate rabbi, choked up audibly when he read out the names of the martyred Israeli athletes.  The Jewish Light ran an Op-Ed box containing the names of each of the fallen Israeli sportsman and the words of the poem by A. E. Houseman, “To an Athlete Dying Young.”

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In addition to the searing memories of the Munich Massacre, there are other milestones from earlier Olympic Games that may haunt the stands at Sochi:

In 1936, the Summer Olympic Games were hosted by Adolf Hitler in Berlin.  By then Hitler had been in power for three years and the Dachau concentration camp and the 1935 anti-Jewish Nuremberg laws were in full force.  In Pittsburgh, Ziggy Kahn, then athletic director of that community’s Jewish Community Center, tried to organize a nationwide boycott of the Nazi Olympics by Jewish athletes.  He was told to be “quiet” and “not cause trouble” by timid members of his own board.  Ziggy Kahn’s son was the late Bill Kahn, former executive of the Jewish Community Center and Jewish Federation of St. Louis and one of the forces behind the creation of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, inspired by his dad.  

In St. Louis, a brave young iceskating champ who had won several Silver Skates competitions was the late Melvin Dubinsky.  He refused the chance of a lifetime to compete in the Olympics because he could not stomach the idea of giving the Nazi regime a propaganda victory.  Dubinsky would grow up very active on behalf of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, helping Jewish refugees from the Displaced Persons Camps and later serving as budget committee chairman of the global Jewish Agency for Israel.

Of course, not all of the Jewish memories of the Olympic Games are negative.  In 1904, as part of the St. Louis World’s Fair, the Zionist flag, which later became the flag of the State of Israel, for the first time flew over an official public building at an international exposition.  Because of the strong efforts of local Zionist leaders, the board of directors of the 1904 World’s Fair agreed to allow the blue and white flag with the Shield of David to fly above the Hall of Nations at the venue in Forest Park.  Just down the street, at Francis Field at Washington University, the 1904 Olympic Games were being hosted.

Let us hope that the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi will be free of violence, full of incredible athletic feats and will create the kind of pride that greeted the first unfurling of the Zionist and future Israeli flag.

‘Cohnipedia’ is the online feature by Editor-in-Chief Emeritus  Robert A. Cohn, chronicling St. Louis’ Jewish history.