Michael Moynihan: The rights and wrongs of the big call to cancel events

Michael Moynihan: The rights and wrongs of the big call to cancel events
Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

The news that Uefa has decided to postpone this year’s European championships for a year feels like the right call — maybe the only call — but those decisions aren’t always to clear-cut.

Italia ’90, Euro ’88, Munich 1972. The event is synonymous with the year, which is hardly surprising given the scale of an Olympics or World Cup.

For scale, read cost. Recent estimates put the cost of hosting the Tokyo Olympics this October at €11.27 billion. Postponing or cancelling an event on that level is a huge challenge, but sometimes it’s simply the right thing to do — unless a key individual decides otherwise.

In 1972 the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics led to calls for the games to be postponed or cancelled. The head of the Munich organising committee was in favour of cancellation, but International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage favoured carrying on.

Brundage said at the time: “The Games must go on, and we must ... and we must continue our efforts to keep them clean, pure and honest.” His view prevailed. The Games went on.

However, the general feeling among athletes in Munich was crystallised by a Dutch participant: “It’s quite simple. We were invited to a party, and if someone comes to the party and shoots people, how can you stay?”

There was a shambolic memorial ceremony at the Munich Olympic Stadium which Brundage used to warn against professionalism and to criticise the decision to exclude Rhodesia — now Zimbabwe — from the Games rather than focusing on the murdered athletes. The Israelis were represented by family members, one of whom died during the ceremony of a heart attack.

Nowadays the decision to continue with the Munich Games is seen as the gold standard in insensitivity — how could playing games be justified when some of the participants had been murdered is a difficult point to counter?

That said, many are unaware of some crucial details involved in the decision not to postpone. For instance, the Israeli Government as well as the team’s chef de mission agreed with the decision.

In addition, Brundage’s overbearing personality coloured the general perception of the decision (he was often referred as Slavery Brundage, or Avery Umbrage, though not to his face).

Years after he died he was accused by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which researches and tracks down Nazi war criminals, of backing the German bid to host the 1936 Olympics for business reasons.

Another significant scheduling decision had to be made almost a decade before Brundage’s call. As everyone knows, president John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22 1963; NFL regular-season games were played across America just two days later. In retrospect this looks like another stunning failure to acknowledge the wider picture. The world was in shock, not just America, and the man who made the call, league commissioner Pete Rozelle, was lambasted in the media.

The decision led in one case to a fistfight among team-mates due to line out in those games; the Dallas Cowboys were playing in Cleveland that weekend, and the stadium announcer there was told not to use the word ‘Dallas’ for fear of enflaming the crowd.

Yet again, there was nuance to the decision. Rozelle had been in contact with Kennedy’s press officer, Pierre Salinger, immediately after the assassination.

“He (Salinger) said, ‘Jack would say we should play,’” was how Rozelle recalled his conversation with Salinger, “And that it would be good as far as lifting the nation out of the doldrums.”

Rozelle referred to Kennedy’s love for American football when announcing the games would go ahead, but the call haunted him. When he stepped down 20 years later a reporter asked him to review his tenure.

“I’m always asked the worst decision I ever made,” said Rozelle. “And I always answer the Kennedy decision.”

The situation was reversed in 2001. When planes crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, at least one NFL side, the New York Jets, could see smoke rising from the scene as they trained.

Some of the team owners, like Wellington Mara of the New York Giants, had opposed Rozelle’s decision to continue with games in 1963 and pressured then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue to postpone the following weekend’s games.

Tagliabue agreed, and the games were duly postponed. Once again, however, the full picture came with interesting detail: The Bush administration wanted the games to go ahead, with one of its officials telling the NFL: “That’s your decision, but we in the White House want to get the country back to normality as quickly as we can.”

The coronavirus is a challenge on a different level to any of those, obviously, but history shows us that obvious decisions are often made in a context that’s far from clear.

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