How IOC scotched Israel before 1948 London Olympics

By Jennifer Lipman, July 26, 2012
French Jewish athlete Micheline Ostermeyer at the 1948 Games

French Jewish athlete Micheline Ostermeyer at the 1948 Games

Since the last time the Olympic Games were staged in London, Israeli athletes have won seven medals.

This week, the team will not only be looking to improve on this record, they will also be savouring the first chance to compete at a London Games under a blue and white flag.

In 1948 six representatives of the infant state - founded two months before the Opening Ceremony - were denied the chance to participate because of an 11th hour ruling by the International Olympic Committee.

There had been great optimism about the involvement of a team from Palestine, following the UN vote of November 1947. The next month, the JC noted that the "young country" could "hardly hope as yet to compete on equal terms with the peoples of older and more populous lands".

Still, obstacles including the lack of facilities for athletic training in the country, a dearth of trainers and limited resources to fund an Olympic team, were not viewed as insurmountable.

"Preparations are in full swing," reported the JC, highlighting the favourable chances of Yehuda Gabbai, 20, who won gold at the Mediterranean Games in Athens, as well as those of the hockey team that been "almost uniformly successful in matches against the British police and military".

"The needs of Jewish Palestine, particularly at this momentous juncture in our history, are so overriding that one hesitates to appeal for any activity of the Yishuv that is not actively and specifically concerned with the building up of the National Home," noted the JC in December 1947.

But it was not to be. Having registered early in 1948 as the team from Palestine, by the time the Games began on July 29, such a state no longer existed. Wary of an Arab boycott, the IOC ruled that Israel was not eligible.

The Israeli organisers attempted to challenge the decision. "Mr Alouf, speaking for the Palestine Olympic Committee, pointed out, Palestine has not been a 'state' but a mandated territory, under which designation its entry was presumably accepted originally. In fact, its teams have taken part in quite a number of international Games." But despite the presence in the competition of Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon - all then at war with Israel - the IOC remained unmoved.

In the week of the Games, the JC acknowledged that "this situation, in view of the more recent changes in Palestine, was rather a delicate one for the Games committee" but added: "In every Olympic Games (as in every wedding!) it is notorious that there is some sort of a contretemps, and we have not been spared a little upset on this occasion."

However, the newspaper expressed confidence that "by the time the Fifteenth Olympic Games come round, there should be no equivocation, and Israel will no doubt enter its team under its own undisputed name." The prediction proved accurate; Israel dispatched 26 athletes to Helsinki in 1952.

Last updated: 11:26am, July 26 2012