Society / November 21, 2023

Should Israel’s Flag Be Raised at the Paris Olympics?

How the IOC is penalizing Russia provides insight into how it could treat Israel at the 2024 Games.

Jules Boykoff and Dave Zirin

Israel’s delegation members attend the Parade of Athletes during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at National Stadium in Tokyo on July 23, 2021. Eleven thousand people coming from 206 countries and regions will participate in the event.

(Yomiuri Shimbun / AP Images )

Israel’s attacks on Gaza raise a question that Western powers in the world of sports would like to avoid: Should Israel be penalized or even barred from competing in the Paris 2024 Olympics? This question has already been on the table for Russia, long a thorn in the side of the International Olympic Committee, first for its doping program and then for invading Ukraine between the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics. Now, Israel’s actions in Gaza and the West Bank may lead to a campaign to get it booted from the Paris Olympics.

Ken McCue, a cultural planner with the sport and social justice group Insaka-Ireland, told us, “The IOC president calls for unity in sport in a recent speech, mentions the Russian invasion of Ukraine but nothing about Israel’s invasion of Palestine.” He added, “Some sport people in Ireland are considering a call for Israel to be banned from the Olympics. The IOC did it to Russia and did it to South Africa, why can’t they do it to Israel?”

As much as the IOC might wish to ignore it, the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres has decried Israel’s “clear violations of international humanitarian law” in Gaza, and demanded an immediate cease-fire. Amnesty International has documented “unlawful Israeli attacks, including indiscriminate attacks, which caused mass civilian casualties” that the human rights group said “must be investigated as war crimes.” Large swaths of the world’s population have looked on in horror, streaming the daily atrocities on their phones and pouring into the streets to protest.

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But are war crimes also Olympic crimes? Not at the IOC’s plush headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. After all, IOC President Thomas Bach has demonstrated a conspicuous affinity for dictators. The IOC headquarters, long forgiving of war criminals, is not exactly The Hague. Nevertheless, Israel and the IOC are on a collision course, and a close look at how the IOC is treating Russia provides insight into what might—or perhaps even should—happen with the state of Israel.

Last month, the IOC banned the Russian Olympic Committee from participating at the Paris 2024 Olympics. This means that Russia is not eligible to receive a portion of Olympic broadcast or sponsorship money, depriving them of millions. (Side note: The IOC did not do this when Russia invaded Crimea back in 2014 between the Olympics and Paralympics, which Russia was hosting in Sochi, pointing to the IOC’s selective morality.) Russian athletes may still be able to participate in Paris, but as neutrals who can’t unfurl the Russian flag and won’t hear the country’s national anthem while on the medal stand.

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The IOC based its decision to ban the Russian Olympic Committee on two factors: its blatant abrogation of the Olympic Truce, a nonbinding resolution passed every two years by the United Nations that encourages countries to refrain from war during the Games, and its breach of the Olympic Charter when it violated the territorial integrity of the national Olympic committee of Ukraine by taking over “regional sports organizations which are under the authority of the National Olympic Committee of Ukraine (namely Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia).” In short, the IOC tightly—and strategically—couched its decision in sporting terms.

What does this mean for Israel? The fiction known as the Olympic Truce is not relevant here, but what if Israel were to annex territory that houses Palestinian sports organizations? Palestine has its own National Olympic Committee, based in the West Bank, that is recognized by the IOC.

The IOC is willing to overlook crimes against humanity, but perhaps not what it considers crimes against sport. It must be said, however, that in the last decade FIFA has not cared when the Israeli military killed Palestinian soccer players and bombed Palestine’s soccer stadiums. FIFA may be a different organization from the IOC, but what binds them is greater than what separates them.

To be consistent, and especially if Israel starts the full-throttle annexation of land in the West Bank or Gaza, the IOC could be pressured to tell Israeli athletes to compete as neutrals, just like Russia. This is not trivial: Israel hopes to send its largest delegation ever to the Olympics. And the Israeli press is already speculating about the dangers that athletes could face. Many have Munich on their minds. In 1972, 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed after being taken hostage by a militant faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization called Black September.

What are the odds that Israel will annex Palestinian territory that includes sport clubs? Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long threatened annexation in the West Bank. Israeli human-rights lawyer Michael Sfard argues that a quiet brand of bureaucratic annexation is already happening. The ground war in Gaza could lead to reoccupation and a land grab.

Washington Post columnist Ishaan Tharoor wrote, “Violence by Israeli settlers, long aimed at depopulating rural Palestinian parts of the occupied West Bank, had grown common in the months since Prime Minister President Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in late December.” In another column, Tharoor noted, “For sections of the Israeli far right, which forms a major part of Netanyahu’s government, Palestinian dispossession is the unspoken prerequisite to their aims.”

The IOC reportedly is considering banning Afghanistan from the Paris Olympics because of gender inequality in regards to sports opportunities inside the country. It’s not a far-fetched notion that worldwide protests in support of a cease-fire and against Israeli occupation might force the issue of Israel’s participation up the IOC’s priority list.

Earlier this year, when being pressed about Russia’s inclusion at the Paris Olympics, Bach, the IOC president, said, “We must be politically neutral but not apolitical.” He added, “We know well that our decisions have political implications, and we have to include that in our thinking.”

All too often, the IOC uses “neutrality” as an excuse for inaction in the face of rights violations and brutality. In doing so, the IOC is treating Palestinians like a disposable population, not a full member of the Olympic family in need of sympathy and support. Yet support for the basic human rights of the Palestinian people rages in the streets and the IOC undoubtedly can hear the cacophony. Popular movements to ban countries like Russia from the Olympics are not an uncommon occurrence, and Israel could be the next target. The attempted occupiers of Ukraine and Palestine could conceivably find themselves on the outside of the Games looking in.

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Jules Boykoff

Jules Boykoff is a professor of political science at Pacific University in Oregon and the author of six books on the Olympic Games, most recently What Are the Olympics For?

Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin is the sports editor at The Nation. He is the author of 11 books on the politics of sports. He is also the coproducer and writer of the new documentary Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL.

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