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“You Could Hear A Frog Piss On Cotton”

Anyone who remembers the Black September attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics or the various protests, boycotts and expulsions of recent games may, in the shadow of today's Gaza, wonder whether Paris 2024 could be a long hot Summer Games. Moments when sport turns political is a recurrent theme of the Olympics. The eyes of the world turn to them for entertainment but are sometimes served something far more potent: challenges, not just to the powerful of this world, but to all of us. 

Black American athlete John Carlos was standing on the victors’ podium at the Olympics in Mexico City. Having just won bronze for his country in the 200m sprint, he and gold medallist Tommie Smith each raised a black-gloved fist towards the sky as the band played The Star Spangled Banner. Black Power. As a child I was shocked and even frightened.

“You could hear a frog piss on cotton,” recalls Carlos of the first moments after he raised his fist in the Black Power salute. Then a roar of boos followed and a deafening scream of racial abuse and white panic that went on for years. It was 1968, the year Martin Luther King was murdered and civil rights riots swirled across the USA. It was the year of the My Lai Massacre, the most famous of the unpunished mass rape-murders committed by US forces in Vietnam – 500 victims at My Lai who never received justice. It was the year that “Fedayeen Leader Yasser Arafat'' found himself on the cover of Time Magazine as a new generation of Palestinian leaders tried to swing the arc of history towards liberation.

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Also in the stadium that day in 1968 was the great Jesse Owens. In his time he had unhinged more than a few Nazis by just being both black and on the winner’s podium four times at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The most spectacular shift in the camera’s focus came at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Palestinian fighters from the Black September Organisation stormed the athletes’ village. Two Israeli athletes were killed in the initial struggle to take hostages. Eleven more Israelis were seized and the next day they and the Black September fighters were bussed to an airbase where German forces launched a clumsy attack that resulted in all the hostages and Palestinians being killed.

The Munich attack had followed a string of defeats for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the entrenchment of a brutal Israeli Occupation. Abu Iyad, one of the founders of the Black September Organisation, said: “You have to prove to the world that the revolution has survived.” Some suggest that a similar context and a similar logic lay behind the October 7 Hamas attack. They knew both then and now that the powerful of this world were not concerned about the suffering of the Palestinian people.

The biggest impact New Zealand ever had in the Olympics was in 1976 - when dozens of countries around the world refused to attend the games in Montreal because New Zealand had not been banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Today, most Kiwis don’t even know this – although many recall with pride John Walker's 1500m win. Long-haired Walker looks like a Greek warrior god as he throws his arms above his head in victory as he crosses the finish line, a posse of white athletes in hot pursuit. Absent were the finest of African athletes, including the world record-setter Filbert Bayi of Tanzania.

The call to ban New Zealand was triggered when earlier that year New Zealand delivered a huge boost to South Africa’s apartheid regime. We sent the All Blacks on a tour in defiance of international embargoes, including by the IOC, on sporting contacts. We further descended into the moral gutter by accepting that the five Maori and one Samoan players in the squad would be endowed with “Honorary White” status to enable them to use white men’s toilets and associate with white people.

Boycotts have a long history at the Olympics. I was a student in France when Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The US called for a boycott, and dozens of countries, including New Zealand, obeyed. President Carter argued that it was wrong to “despoil a small and relatively weak country” like Afghanistan. This was entirely true and my only quibble would be that it was a bit rich coming from the Olympic champion of Despoiling Small and Weak Countries.

In 2001 the USA and a coalition of partner states,including New Zealand and Australia, invaded Afghanistan. Later that year the US hosted the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Afghanistan was subjected to decades of pummelling by the Americans for what some Saudis did to them on 9/11.

I’m not aware of boycotts in 2001 or the banning of the USA in the many subsequent summer and winter Olympics for killing millions of innocents in small and weak countries.

So let’s leap to Paris 2024: the City of Light and Genocide Denial. While the Olympic Games are going on in Paris, the Hunger Games will continue in Gaza. “Gaza is in a state of famine and Israel is using starvation as a weapon of war”, EU policy chief Josep Borrell said this week.

Russia is banned from the Olympics for invading Ukraine whilst Israel will march heads held high along the route, the Star of David flying and projected onto screens around the world as their national anthem, Hatikvah (Hope), rings out on both banks of the Seine. Meanwhile Israel is doing everything in its considerable power to snuff out Palestinians’ hope (hatikah) for a future. It has killed more civilians in a few months than Russia has killed in years. They have used helicopter gunships, tanks, snipers and bombs to butcher civilians queuing for aid, trying to rescue people trapped under bombed buildings, performing surgery on victims or simply walking down a street with a white flag.

In an Op Ed in the LA Times, an American doctor in Gaza recently described having to deal with a succession of children shot in the head by single sniper bullets. Israel has committed a vast, documented array of war crimes and has been armed and aided by the USA. Calls by progressive politicians to expel Israel from the Olympics fall on deaf ears: IOC President Thomas Bach of Germany confirmed it has never even been considered.

I’ll give the last word to John Carlos who, along with Tommie Smith, was chased out of the Olympic Village in Mexico for giving a salute. Carlos had the courage to, as he said, break the shackles of his oppression and do what he considered a moral obligation, to do what Malcolm X told him: “Be true to yourself, even when it hurts.”

The Olympic champion gives us a challenge that each of us should take personally:

"In life, there's the beginning and the end," he says. "The beginning don't matter. The end don't matter. All that matters is what you do in between – whether you're prepared to do what it takes to make change. There has to be physical and material sacrifice. When all the dust settles and we're getting ready to play down for the ninth inning, the greatest reward is to know that you did your job when you were here on the planet."

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