(By George Weigel, NationalReview) Watching as much as I could stand of the opening “ceremonies’ of the XXX Olympics on the evening of July 27, the thought occurred that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) does perform one useful public service every biennium: It reminds the world that you can’t invent liturgy.
For that’s what these multi-hour theatrical extravaganzas have become: a kind of ersatz liturgy of the in vitro World Community, in which film directors (such as Britain’s Danny Boyle) take the role once played by the monks and canons who designed public worship centuries ago. And as such things go, London’s secularized Olympic liturgy on the night of July 27 was perhaps slightly less offensive than others in the same genre. Boyle unabashedly anchored the show/liturgy in history, meaning British history, rather than in the Gnostic and pagan fantasies that have become the Olympic norm. But it does tell you something about what Evelyn Waugh would have called “decline and fall” when the British National Health Service is proposed for global worship as a kind of sacrament, when Paul McCartney (sorry, Sir Paul McCartney) replaces Ralph Vaughan Williams as liturgical hymnwriter, and when H.M. the Queen, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, is reduced to a bit player in a knock-off of the Bond movies.
This is not what Thomas Cranmer, let alone Pope Gregory the Great, had in mind by “liturgy.”
Amidst Boyle’s histrionics, a moment of silence in honor of the Israeli athletes murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, which was urged on the IOC by several national legislatures, would likely have dishonored the dead rather than remembering them with the dignity and honor they were denied by Black September 40 years ago. Yet one hopes that the IOC does find the spine to fit a commemoration of the victims of the Munich massacre into the ceremonies closing the current London Games. The International Olympic Committee and its then–American chairman, Avery Brundage, disgraced themselves four decades ago by failing to acknowledge publicly, at a memorial service hastily arranged in the Olympic Stadium on September 6, 1972, that Olympic athletes had been murdered for the simple reason that they were members of the Israeli Olympic team — a failure that would have been inconceivable had the victims been, say, Americans. So if the Olympics are going to be an occasion for ersatz secular liturgy, let the IOC at least do it right, and mark, with appropriate solemnity, the sacrifice made by the Israeli victims of the 1972 assault in Munich. (And if the Arab states, which insisted that their flags not be lowered to half-staff during the September 6, 1972, memorial service, object, well, too bad.)
The horrors of 1972 also bring to mind one of the greats of sports broadcasting, the late Jim McKay, whose simple, shocked statement of fact — “They’re all gone” — indelibly inscribed the Munich Massacre on the memory of anyone watching ABC’s broadcast of the 1972 Olympics. It was, to be sure, a simpler media age, indeed a simpler rhetorical age: Athletes displayed their skills (not “skill-sets”) and were judged by their fans (not their “fan base”) according to their careers (not their ‘body of work”). But even in that somewhat more innocent age of sports broadcasting, McKay’s solemn simplicity and directness marked something important: It bespoke a world in which it was still possible to identify and condemn unmitigated evil — even if that capacity for moral judgment eluded the IOC in 1972.
As the Games of the XXX Olympiad unfold over the next fortnight, and the likeliest moral arguments will have to do with doping and other forms of cheating, it will be well hold in our memories Munich 1972 and the names of the murdered Israelis: Moshe Weinberg; Yossef Romano; Ze’ev Friedman; David Berger; Yakov Springer; Eliezer Halfin; Yossef Gutfreund; Kehat Shorr; Mark Slavin; Andre Spitzer; Amitzur Shapira. The international fellowship and comity the Olympic movement claims to represent may never be much more than a charade celebrated in ersatz liturgy. Still, it would be a small and welcome step toward a more dignified conception of these biennial global gatherings if the IOC would recognize that remembering the victims of the Munich Massacre, and condemning their murderers, is not “politicizing” the Games. It’s a matter of reading the modern Olympic motto – Citius, Altius, Fortius (“Faster, Higher, Stronger”) — as a summons to moral aspiration: to the human nobility that always characterizes true sport and true sportsmen.