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September 9, 2021 12:06 pm
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Give Sports Bigotry No Sanction

avatar by David May and Michael Levinson

Opinion

Saudi Arabia’s Tahani Alqahtani (white) and Israel’s Raz Hershko compete in the first round of the women’s judo over 78-kilogram category at the Tokyo Olympics on July 30, 2021, at Nippon Budokan. Photo: Reuters/Kyodo News.

Hamid Sajjadi, Iran’s recently appointed minister of sports, warned Iranian athletes in August not to compete against counterparts from the “child-killing and occupying regime of Israel.” With the 2022 Winter Olympic games commencing just five months from now, sporting authorities must condemn and punish this discrimination.

At this year’s Olympic games, the world watched Fethi Nourine from Algeria and Mohamed Abdalrasool from Sudan forfeit their judo matches rather than risk sharing the Olympic stage with an Israeli opponent. Supported by the Palestinian Olympic Committee, Nourine and Abdalrasool demonstrated that old hatreds die hard. Meanwhile, Olympians from presumably hostile countries welcomed their Israeli peers, embodying the Olympic values of sportsmanship and mutual understanding.

The International Judo Federation (IJF) promptly suspended Nourine and his coach, and launched an investigation into the incident. In a press release, the IJF said, “Judo sport is based on a strong moral code, including respect and friendship, to foster solidarity and we will not tolerate any discrimination, as it goes against the core values and principles of our sport.” Defiant, Nourine told the Algerian press, “My position is consistent on the Palestinian issue, and I reject normalisation, and if it cost me that absence from the Olympic Games, God will compensate.”

For years, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has called upon athletes in the Arab world to boycott Israeli sports. Jibril Rajoub, the chairman of the Palestinian Olympic Committee and the Palestinian Football Association, has weaponized these sporting events to condemn what he calls the “crime of normalization.” In 2014, Rajoub declared, “Any activity of normalization in sports with the Zionist enemy is a crime against humanity.” Following Nourine’s withdrawal, Rajoub posted a photo on Facebook of the two together, and commended Nourine’s “courageous stance refusing normalization.”

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Rajoub is effectively encouraging athletes to break Olympic rules, and destroy their careers in a campaign to exclude and alienate Israeli athletes. “The practice of sport is a human right,” states the Olympic Charter. “Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind.”

Rajoub even has a personal history of promoting violence against Israel.

In 2013, he stated that if given the opportunity, he would use nuclear weapons against the Jewish state. In 2018, FIFA fined and subsequently banned Rajoub for using threats of violence to convince Argentina to cancel its match with Israel. FIFA’s chief of investigations added that Rajoub “glorified terrorism,” and compared Israelis to “Satan and Nazis.” Rajoub, under the direction of the PA, has used the Palestinian Olympic Committee as a political arm.

The IJF has taken commendable action to root out hatred at its own competitions. Earlier this year, the IJF suspended Iran for four years due to its refusal to let its athletes compete against Israelis. However, in 2021, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that the IJF had no “legal basis” for serving Iran an unlimited suspension over its boycott of Israeli athletes. The Court did find, though, that the Iranian delegation committed “serious violations” and referred the case back to the IJF for disciplinary action.

At the same time, another positive trend is emerging: Athletes from countries historically hostile to Israel have shunned the discriminatory boycott. Saeid Mollaei fled the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2019 after Iranian agents coerced him to throw a match to avoid facing an Israeli — whom Mollaei has since befriended. After winning a silver medal in Tokyo, Mollaei said, “Thank you to Israel for the good energy. This medal is dedicated also to Israel.” Mollaei even used the Hebrew word todah — thank you — in his speech.

Moreover, Saudi Arabian judoka Tahani Alqahtani faced Israeli Raz Hershko in women’s Olympic judo, and even shook hands after the match — despite the tremendous backlash she received in the days prior to the competition. The IJF commended the move, stating, “Saudi Arabia proves that, through sport, we can go beyond differences and make sport a force to unite the world.”

Vahid Sarlak, an Iranian Judoka whose own delegation forced him to purposefully withdraw from a match in 2005 to avoid facing an Israeli athlete, has since openly befriended Israeli athletes. “I am next to Israeli athletes,” Sarlak said in a video message in August with Israel’s national judo coach, Shani Hershko. “I have a great message to you. They really love Iranians. Sports is sports, not about politics.”

Sports provide a platform to exhibit the best in humanity, and, sometimes, the worst. The Olympics are supposed to unite athletes from across the world in the fraternity of competition and fair play. Instead, the Palestinian Authority, Iran, and some athletes used this year’s games to discriminate against Israelis. As preparations are well underway for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, the International Olympic Committee, and all sporting bodies, should show zero tolerance for sports discrimination.

David May is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Michael Levinson is an intern. Follow David on Twitter @DavidSamuelMay. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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