Sport is supposed to transcend politics. International sporting competitions aim to bring talented people together in an atmosphere of mutual respect, tolerance and fierce competition. For the most part, this is the way it has always played out.
A recent spate of prejudice and intolerance has leaked into the sporting world seeking to undermine the very essence of good sportsmanship. Unsurprisingly, Israeli athletes have been the victims of such hate.
The first abysmal display occurred at the recent world swimming championships held in Doha, Qatar, under the auspice of FINA, the international governing body of swimming.
Despite hosting the world’s top swimmers the organizers of the event refused to show the Israeli flag in their computer graphics, instead showing a blank white square next to the names of the Israeli swimmers. The Israeli flag was not placed outside the venue where the other national flags flew high. The Times of Israel also reported that the organizers replaced the word Israel with the abbreviation ISR on their graphics.
FINA respond to the outcry from Israel and the Jewish world by posting a ‘vague’ statement which declared; “FINA guarantees that all steps will be taken in the future for such acts not to occur again, namely in the 2014 edition of the FINA Swimming World Cup in Dubai and Doha.”
The fact that no effort has been made to find a new host for the 2014 event, coupled with the lack of any real condemnation or consequence, is nothing short of shameful. Qatar is also set to host the 2022 FIFA Soccer World Cup. In light of recent events it is perplexing that this hasn’t been revoked.
Nonetheless, Israel responded the best way it could have; with Amit Ivri winning silver in the women’s 100-meter individual medley and breaking the Israeli record in the process. When asked about the discrimination experienced by the Israeli team, Ivri said “I’d rather not talk about the politics.” Her grace in refusing to let the deplorable gestures of the host country mar the experience is commendable.
The next embarrassing gesture occurred at a low-tier tennis championship held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Just before his game was due to commence, Tunisia’s top tennis player, Malek Jaziri, received an email from the Tunisian Tennis Federation forbidding him from competing against Israeli player, Amir Weintraub in the quarterfinals of the ATP Challenger.
The Tunisian player (ranked 169th in the world) was suffering from a knee-injury but it was the instruction from above that forced him to forfeit. While Weintraub proceeded to the semi-finals Jaziri was devastated with the potential effect this would have on his career. This comes in the context of the country having been locked in a political crisis due to stagnant relations between the ruling Islamist party and the opposition.
In an interview with AFP, Malek Jaziri’s manager and brother, Amir Jaziri, condemned the government for manipulating the tennis tournament for political gain.
“It brings politics into sports. We are totally against that,” he said.
“Tennis doesn’t normally get much media coverage in Tunisia. What happened was only done as part of an electoral campaign, and everyone profits (electorally) from this.”
Unlike the weak response to the swimming debacle, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) was quick to condemnthis ploy and banned Tunisia from competing in the next Davis Cup.
“There is no room for prejudice of any kind in sport or in society,” said ITF President Francesco Ricci Bitti.
He continued; “The ITF Board decided to send a strong message to the Tunisian Tennis Federation that this kind of action will not be tolerated by any of our members.”
Sport diplomacy surpasses cultural differences and aims to bring people together. The best way for Israel to counter those attempting to undermine this ‘inner sanctum’ is by excelling.
Last week two Israeli basketball players showcased their skill competing in an NBA showdown between the Houston Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks. It was the first time two Israelis faced each other in the NBA. Omri Casspi (Rockets) is the first Israeli born player in NBA history. He played against fellow Israeli Gal Mekel whose Maverick’s came out victorious at 113-105.
After the game the two players posed for a photo together. In an interview with Haaretz, reprinted by The Jewish Daily Forward, Casspi said; “It was quite emotional.”
“Gal played a great game, I am very happy for him. I think this game was a badge of respect for Israeli basketball, we both played many minutes.”
Not only was this a triumph for Israeli sport, but the respect and admiration with which the two athletes addressed each other should be an example to those in Qatar and Tunisia perpetuating hate. It also shows that tiny Israel is diverse, its athletes are flourishing and they refuse to be defined by politics.
Until next time,
Media & Advocacy Director
Zionist Federation of Australia