More than a half-century ago, the world awakened to the threat of terrorism at major sporting events when eight men in jumpsuits hopped the fence at Munich’s Olympic Village and carried out an attack that would ultimately leave 11 of Israel’s athletes dead, along with a West German policeman and five of the eight assailants.
The attackers were members of the group Black September – an affiliate of the Palestine Liberation Organization. They had wanted to hold Israeli athletes hostage and force the release of 236 prisoners held in Israel and two leaders of the West German Baader-Meinhof terrorist group. But their mission failed, and 20 hours after it began, a botched rescue attempt by German law enforcement led to the shocking carnage, with some of the night’s events playing out on live television.
The Munich massacre that took place in the wee hours of Sept. 5-6, 1972, was a wake-up call for Western governments to the threat of terrorism and the dire need for tight security at international athletic events and greater scrutiny when selecting venues.
After the death of his Olympic teammates, legendary Israeli swimmer Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals and set seven world records at the 1972 Munich games, was forced to flee Germany in haste, hidden under a blanket and fearing for his life.
For Israeli and Jewish athletes, the ever-present threat is once again blinking red in the wake of the Oct. 7, 2023, attacks on Israel by Hamas that left 1,200 people dead, including women and children, and 239 people held hostage. In February, the World Aquatic Federation is set to host an international swimming competition in Doha, the capital of Qatar. The event would normally determine qualifiers for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. But the International Olympic Committee is now facing pressure to either move the event or change the qualifying regulations so Israeli and Jewish athletes will not be forced to attend or be penalized for skipping.
For the last decade, Qatar has served as an asylum for Hamas’ political leadership, and it has long provided the terrorist organization with financial assistance estimated at roughly $1.8 billion in 2021. Though Qatar is a tiny nation – about twice the size of Delaware – its influence is outsized. It’s home to the state-owned Al Jazeera news network, which often airs anti-Israeli and American angles, as well as a large U.S. airbase that played a crucial role in evacuating U.S. citizens and Afghanistan refugees after the fall of Kabul in 2022.
While Qatar has tried to burnish its image in recent years, hosting the World Cup in 2022 despite an avalanche of criticism from human rights groups, the country has drawn intense criticism in the wake of the attacks on Israel. The outrage stemmed from the Qatari minister of foreign affairs’ statement blaming Israel for the Oct. 7 Hamas assault. That position put Qatar on the same side of the war as Iran and contrasted with the reaction from the United Arab Emirates, Qatar’s rival and Israel’s closest partner in the Arab world. The UAE declared the Hamas attack “a serious and grave escalation” and said it was appalled by reports that “Israeli civilians have been abducted as hostages in their homes.”
Several international officials are now appealing to the World Aquatic Federation to move its world swimming championships from Qatar to a safer venue or change Olympic qualifying regulations to allow Israeli and Jewish athletes to skip the event. Officials from the United Kingdom, Germany, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Azerbaijan, and several Scandinavian countries have pressed the World Aquatic Federation to relocate the swimming event.
Eric Spitz, a Jewish tech and sports businessman whose daughter is a dual citizen of Israel and the United States and a member of the Israeli women’s swim team, is spearheading a coalition demanding a change of venue. The coalition launched a website, www.notodoha.com, and Spitz, who is not related to Mark Spitz, sent a letter, dated Wednesday, to the International Olympics Committee, pressing for a solution that would not force Israeli and Jewish swimmers to jeopardize their safety in Doha.
The letter notes that IOC President Thomas Back, during an event in Tel Aviv last year, apologized for waiting 50 years to commemorate the Israel victims of the Munich Massacre “in a dignified way” and called the event one of “the darkest days in Olympic history.”
“Since no Jews could justifiably feel safe while competing in Doha, we implore you to uphold your core tenant and heed your own words of regret,” the unsigned letter states. “This is your chance to bend the arc of history toward justice. The Olympic movement must be a force for peace, unity, and goodwill, as it was intended to be.”
The “No to Doha” letter notes that the IOC this week, from Nov. 15-17, is scheduled to hold commissions meetings. The commissions, a set of working groups on different topics impacting the games, include an IOC Advisory Committee on Human Rights. The commissions advise the IOC president and executive board on pressing matters on their topic of expertise.
Earlier this week, Bach underscored the need for unity in the sporting world amid increasing global tensions. “The current geopolitical tensions are extremely complex. In such times, the unifying power of sport is more important than ever before,” he told an audience in an opening address at the 2023 International Federation Forum in Switzerland.
“Today, millions of people around the globe are longing for such a unifying force that brings us all together in our so confrontational world,” he continued. “Our role is clear: to unite – and not to deepen divisions. Therefore, we carry an important responsibility – to stand together for the power of sport and to live up to our shared mission to make the world a better place through sport.”
Eric Spitz is now imploring Bach to live up to that promise and ensure that Israeli and Jewish swimmers can continue pursuing their sport without risking their safety or antisemitic harassment by requiring their travel to Doha to qualify for the Olympics.
“For many, athletics serve as a sanctuary from the chaos and turmoil of life,” Spitz wrote in his letter to the IOC. “The Olympic movement, which represents the pinnacle of non-violent competition, fosters a global fellowship bound by an unwavering passion for the sport. At this moment, Jewish and Israeli athletes are navigating some of the most arduous trials of their lives … inaction on the part of the IOC would unfairly remove a source of joy these athletes cling to.”
The IOC did not immediately return RCP’s request for comment.
Qatar and Iran have a long history of discrimination and antisemitic demonstrations against Israeli athletes. In 2013, organizers of a Swimming World Cup in Doha failed to show the Israeli flag in their computer graphics, substituting a white flag and failing to display the name Israel, instead using “IRS” in several of the cup’s races. The international snubbing earned Qatar a formal warning from Federation Internationale de Natation, the world’s governing body for swimming.
David May, research manager for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, has written extensively about Qatar’s ties to terrorism, as well as its, Iran’s, and other Arab countries’ mistreatment of Israeli and Jewish athletes.
“The Qataris pride themselves on being the middlemen for a lot of these engagements [with the U.S.], but one common threat is that they are very often in close contact with terrorist groups – not just Hamas or the Taliban,” he told RCP. “They host a variety of terrorist groups, many of whom the Qatari government doesn’t recognize as terrorists, so they’re more than happy to work with them.”
In the 1950s, Israel was a competitive force in the Asian soccer league, but several Asian and Middle Eastern teams refused to play against Israel. Rather than punishing those countries for violating the international sports code of ethics, the league kicked Israel out, May recalled.
During the World Cup, international pressure forced Qatar to allow Israeli visitors and athletes, and in recent years, international bodies have tried to crack down on Doha’s and Tehran’s discrimination against Israeli athletes, May said.
The International Judo Federation in 2021 suspended Iran for forcing athletes to forfeit or lose intentionally to avoid facing Israeli opponents. In February 2018, the United World Wrestling Disciplinary Chamber banned an Iranian wrestler for six months and two years, respectively, for intentionally throwing a match to avoid facing an Israeli opponent. Tunisia’s tennis team was banned from the 2014 David Cup for ordering its players not to compete against an Israeli athlete.
Tunisia has no official diplomatic relations with Israel, and its government is currently debating a bill that would criminalize any normalization of ties with Israel. In 2018, the International Olympic Committee banned Tunisia from hosting the 2022 Youth Olympics after the country banned Israelis from a taekwondo event.
“There’s been several instances of Arab or Muslim athletes who have refused to play against Israeli athletes or refuse to uphold sportsmanship, such as shaking the hands of their opponents or bowing before their opponents depending on the sport,” May said. “To varying degrees, international sporting bodies have punished those athletes violating those codes, but it definitely hasn’t been uniform.”
“There’s been times where Qatar has been a little more forward-leaning regarding Israel,” he added. “But all that is kind of null and void now when you consider the fact that Qatar is funding one of Israel’s biggest enemies and supplying the funds that allow for Israelis to be massacred.”
Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.