I came across an article in the Israeli media this week, but was unable to find it covered in the English language media. I suppose the story I was looking for is relatively insignificant as far as the rest of the world is concerned – sport and Israel – two topics that rarely come together on the worldwide scene.
The story in question is about events that occurred at the Junior Fencing World Championships, which are currently taking place in France. A young Israeli athlete by the name of Kostiantyn Voronov won a number of matches against opponents from the Philippines, Russia, Thailand, Georgia and Sri Lanka before being scheduled to compete against Khalifa Al-Abri, who happened to be from the United Arab Emirates. Upon learning he was up against an Israeli, Al-Abri immediately withdrew from the competition. Next to his name on the draw, the words read “withdrew because of extraordinary circumstances”.
The President of the European Fencing Confederation, Vladimir Shklar, who happens to be Israeli, told the media afterwards that it is something that keeps occurring and an issue that needs to be raised at the next meeting. But in the end, he felt sorry for Al-Abri, who most likely had no qualms himself about competing against an Israeli, but was more likely to have been pressured to withdraw. How sad it was therefore that after years of training, a competitor would prefer to withdraw from the competition rather than compete against an Israeli? Shklar was possibly being diplomatic, but many would also maintain that he was being too kind because the excuse behind the so-called “extraordinary circumstances” for the UAE athlete’s withdrawal from competing is a sham.
The truth of the matter is, that it was political reasons – the boycott of a competitor from one country, a boycott behind which there is an element of racism. There should be no place in sport for such conduct. Not from the athletes, and not from the bureaucrats.
Sadly, there is nothing unique about the athlete’s decision to withdraw in this instance. In October last year, two Israelis, Yarden Gerbi and Sagi Muki won bronze medals in their respective divisions at the Judo Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi. Along with their other teammates, Gerbi and Muki competed wearing uniforms with the International Judo Federation insignia, rather than Israeli flags, as per an agreement with the organisers of the event. They were only given visas after a number of conditions, including a gag on talking to the international media. Gerbi said, “I represent my State always, whether they hide my flag or not.” Muki continued, “We cannot be erased”.
In November, Israeli woman Nili Block won the World Kickboxing Championships. But during her semi-final match, the in-ring referee was Palestinian. When Nili won, he refused to raise her arm as the victor. After a little commotion, another referee entered the ring and raised Nili’s arm. The Palestinian referee later said he was worried he would be shot back at home if he had raised Nili’s arm, and did apologise.
In January this year, Israeli windsurfers Yoav Omer and Noy Drihan who wanted to compete at the Youth Sailing World Championships in Malaysia were forced to withdraw after unreasonable demands were set out by the organisers as a condition for their visas. These demands reportedly included a prohibition to to compete under the Israeli flag or have any Israeli symbols on their clothes or boards. And, if they won a gold medal, the anthem would not be played.
Even back in 2009, Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer was denied a visa to Dubai to compete in the Dubai Tennis Championship. The eventual winner of that tournament was Venus Williams who at the time hailed Peer’s bravery in at least trying to make it to the competition. She said, “I felt like I had to talk about her… I am not here to rock any boat or upset people, I am just here to do things that are right…” It is a shame that more athletes are not willing to speak out.
As recently as this week, two Israeli beach-volleyball players were only issued visas to enter Qatar a day before their scheduled flight, and their appearance in the competition was the first time Israelis had ever played in an Arab country in that sport. In Qatar in 2013, Israeli swimmers competed with a white flag next to their name in official broadcasts. One can only wonder what will happen at the Soccer World Cup, to be held in Qatar in 2022.
As we approach the Olympic Games, which are to be held later this year in Rio de Janeiro, we are reminded of the controversy that troubled the London Games of 2012 (and even Beijing in 2008 and Athens in 2004) over countries, such as Iran, and athletes declaring that they would not face off against Israel. To its credit, the International Olympic Committee has previously made it clear that it will not tolerate such behaviour. Sport in general and particularly the Olympics, should be well above political boycotts which single out one country and one people alone. It should be about bringing people together in competition to learn more about each other, understand their shared interests and humanity and in that way, foster tolerance and peace.