Monday, 22 April 2013

Terror touches sport, over and over again

For the terrorist, the sporting event - seen as a celebration of the human spirit - ironically turns into a convenient target to grab widespread attention
By Rohit Brijnath, The Sunday Times, 21 Apr 2013

Terror has no timing. Early morning on July 27, 1996, back in my bland hotel room on the outskirts of Atlanta, I turned on the TV after a long day at the Olympics. To see a replay of a gymnast twist on a beam promises to restore the spirit. Instead, from out of nowhere, in the middle of this fortnight of fraternity, a bomb has gone off. A woman will be killed, a TV cameraman will die of a heart attack.

I thought only one word, as did so many others.


Steven Spielberg's 2005 film has this single name. It is enough. Munich is shorthand for terror, it is code for 1972 and the Olympics, it alludes to Connollystrasse 31, the concrete building at the Olympic Village that became the first, famous, awful intersection of sport and inhumanity.

Israeli athletes - all 11 tragically killed - were taken hostage, and during negotiations, Mr Walther Troger, mayor of the Olympic Village, asked Issa, the commander of the Palestinian Black September group: "Why?"

In the haunting documentary One Day In September, Mr Troger said Issa told him: "We're sorry for you, you make good Olympic Games... but you offered us a showcase."

So did Boston's marathon. For the terrorist, the sporting event - notionally seen as a celebration of life - ironically turns into a convenient target. Nothing, no political rally, no rock concert, can so frequently pull a crowd as the weekly sporting contest. No public figure, not even presidents, can match the athlete, in the cameras that stalk him, in the global attention he gets. This makes for true obscenity, as with the Boston Marathon: horror telecast live across the world.

Terrorist acts can't be compared, there can be no top 10 tragedies list, for each is uniquely cruel. Boston appalled us because it was a marathon, this race of endurance that requires that every runner finds his hero within.

No race is as sweetly egalitarian as this varied collision of people. Nowhere else can a middle-aged mother, a man dressed as Elvis and a world champion run the same course, on the same day, at roughly the same time. And before such an uplifting and musical audience.

Said Singaporean David Tay, who ran in Boston in 2007: "They have bands, cheerleaders, singers, and they have a different way of cheering in Boston. They have different themes. At Heartbreak Hill, for instance, all the residents ring cowbells."

No sport has such a resilient crowd that stays for hours, not just rejoicing in every runner but reviving them. No sport has such an extensive crowd, which ranges across 42km. No sport also has such a crowd that you cannot protect.

Boston does not sit alone in its grief. Sport has been pockmarked by violence since Munich, which stands there like a bloody touchstone. In 2002, a bomb exploded near Real Madrid's stadium before a Champions League match with Barcelona.

In a US News & World Report story from 2004, a former intelligence analyst had tallied "168 different terrorist attacks on sporting events" since 1972. It has grown since, only confirming that the idea that politics and sport should not mix is inherently simplistic.

In 2008 in Colombo, the start of a marathon was interrupted by a suicide bomber. In 2009 in Lahore, gunfire tattooed a bus with Sri Lankan cricketers. In 2010, another bus carrying Togo's football team was machine-gunned by rebels. Each time, someone died.

And with every bullet, sport's myth of untouchability was further interred.

Surely terrorists watched sport, surely athletes were beyond harm. It is a conceit built on stories like Pele being accosted in 1999 by robbers, who then apologised and left upon recognising him.

But life changes. Almost a decade later, even after revealing who he was, Pele was reportedly robbed by knife-wielding men in Brazil.

Similarly, in subcontinental cricket, a presumption existed that in lands of fanatical worship, to harm a cricketer was to alienate a public completely. But there is no cause now in terrorism, only chaos, and everyone, even cricketers, qualifies as a target.

Sport also offered the illusion that it is a noble activity, somehow rising above man's baser instincts. And that to target these arenas of the human spirit was in fact somehow unsporting (Does that mean marketplaces were okay?).

The Olympic website speaks of a truce and a tradition in ancient Greece called Ekecheiria ("laying down of arms"), dating to the 9th century BC. It allowed safe passage to and from the Games for athletes and pilgrims. As if real life stopped briefly as mankind played sport.

In later centuries, athletes were turned into ambassadors in shorts and sport was used as a vehicle to defuse tension. China and the United States undertook a "ping-pong diplomacy", India and Pakistan made cricketing handshakes, North Korea and South Korea walked together at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympics.

It was sweet and hopeful, but really we were investing sport with a greater power than it holds. The fact is the suspected terrorists in Boston turned out to be gifted amateur athletes, young men who boxed and wrestled. The fact is the terrorist now lays down arms at no time and for no one. Not for women at a bus stop. Not for old men in a train. Not even for a beautiful eight-year-old boy called Martin with gaps in his teeth, who played soccer and baseball and yet died on a field of play in Boston.

Terror has changed sport. Bit by bit. In the late 1980s in India, I would walk through hotel corridors unmolested, knocking on the doors of cricketers' rooms. Now entire hotel floors are cordoned off and these cricketing men in shining white are accompanied by the gleam of a protector's gun. At matches, spectators can be divested of small change, lighters, pens, water, cameras, but complaints are more muted. It's an altered world: Now even the streaker thinks twice before invading a ground.

In the documentary One Day In September, in a scene almost surreal, one of the members of the Black September group says that as they scaled a low fence into the Munich Olympic Village, they helped a couple of drunk athletes across at the same time. Now no fence is scaleable. Now missiles are deployed, blimps roam, divers sweep rivers. Now security bills at major games have climbed to a billion dollars.

Still terror touches sport, still Boston is shaken by what it was left with. Here was the bloodied arena; here was the cruelty of a bomb at the finish line when the runner is about to honour himself and spectators are at their most generous; here was confirmation that even George Orwell's disdain of fair play in sport as "war minus the shooting" was inaccurate. Here, now, in sport, there is shooting.

But here was also some potent sporting symbolism. Even as this was an act on American soil, it took place near a line of flags of nations, including Singapore's, which you find mainly at sporting events. Flags that stand as banners of solidarity, as unifiers, as testimony that everyone runs and will keep doing so.

And when the bombs went off, as we know, a strange thing happened. People ran to help. People ran to push wheelchairs. People ran to donate blood. The sporting field had just seen the worst of mankind at work but, as often occurs, it had also brought to us the best of mankind.

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