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Jewish Journal

Spirit of Sportsmanship Boycotts Israel

by Franklin Foer

August 26, 2004 | 8:00 pm

The Olympic Games are, of course, more than just games. As Bob Costas and the event's organizers constantly remind the world, they are a festival of humanity, a great coming together, the one moment when the planet gathers in a friendly spirit of healthy competition. Dogging your viewing of pummel-horse routines and synchronized diving, there is ample talk of the "Olympic movement," a phrase intended to highlight these aspirations.

Last week, however, as the Athens games got under way, an Iranian judo champion exposed the hollowness of this rhetoric. Rather than compete against an Israeli, Arash Miresmaeili quit the Olympics entirely. As he told the Iranian government's official news service: "I refuse to fight my Israeli opponent to sympathize with the suffering of the people of Palestine, and I do not feel upset at all."

His one-man boycott earned him encomiums from President Mohammad Khatami. According to reports, the Iranians planned on rewarding Miresmaeili with $115,000, the purse handed out to gold medalists.

Under Olympic protocol, such ad hoc political boycotts are forbidden. (The prohibitions placed on South Africa's apartheid-era teams, by contrast, were official and the product of international consensus.)

They fly in the face of everything the Olympic movement proclaims about sportsmanship and fellowship. Indeed, if the Iranians had owned up to their intentions and the Olympics officials had felt inclined to follow their own rules, the country would have been subject to stiff sanctions.

But facing the prospects of punishment, Miresmaeili turned coward. Just before his match against the Israeli, he seems to have binged on food, stuffing himself to the point that he no longer fit his weight class, earning an automatic disqualification.

Rather than taking Miresmaeili to task for his stated political stunt, Olympics officials have accepted his highly contrived alibi. The Iranians will apparently pay no price for their transgression. Unfortunately, this is a typical tale. Israel continually suffers sporting boycotts, and officials, Olympic and otherwise, continually turn a blind eye toward this injection of politics into sport.

Ever since Israel's founding, some Muslim nations have refused to compete against the Jewish state. In 1962, when Indonesia hosted the Asian Games, it chose to officially cancel the event rather than permit Israeli participation. After the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the boycott intensified and has come to permeate almost every venue.

Earlier this year, for instance, Israeli fencers were initially not allowed to attend that sport's world cup in Jordan. Organizers feared that the mere presence of Israelis would cause the entire Muslim world to drop out. (Jordan ultimately caved in to international pressure and invited the Israelis.)

Even the mentally impaired have suffered this exclusion. At last year's Special Olympics in Ireland, both Saudi Arabia and Algeria refused to play Israel in soccer and table tennis.

Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia has been one of the leading proponents of the boycott. In 2002, Prince Sultan signed a letter endorsing an Arab Football Federation proposal to ban Israeli competition in all international soccer matches. And when the Saudi Nabeel Al-Magahwi refused to play an Israeli at the 2003 world table tennis championship in Paris, he became a cause célèbre.

"In addition to the great support I received from government officials, residents and expatriates, I have received a special certificate from the Palestinian President Yasser Arafat that I'm very proud of," Al-Magahwi told a news conference. Even as the Bush administration has applauded Libya's baby steps toward reform, the Gadhafi family has been another boycott stalwart. Earlier this summer, it refused to let Israeli chess players attend the world championship in Tripoli. (Chess' governing body is affiliated with the International Olympic Committee.)

Because Gadhafi's sons are sports fanatics, the country has aggressively lobbied to host other major events. But it dropped its bid to bring the 2010 soccer World Cup to Libya, rather than provide the International Soccer Federation with assurances that Israeli players and fans would be granted visas.

This boycott has created a garbled sporting geography. In soccer, for instance, Israel doesn't compete against other Asian teams for a World Cup berth. International soccer officials have placed Israel in the European federation. (For a time, Israel was forced to compete even further afield, in the Oceania Division against Australia and New Zealand.)

Unfortunately, this means that Israel must beat the likes of Italy and France to make its way to the World Cup -- a far fiercer set of opponents than it would face in Asia. Despite having some great players and solid teams, Israel hasn't qualified for the quadrennial tournament since 1970.

But there are good reasons for Israel to play against its Mideast neighbors. On the one hand, the high-toned Olympic rhetoric has truth to it. Sport can bring nations closer.

The soccer player Haim Revivo, one of the best Israeli athletes of his generation, has starred for the clubs Galatasaray and Fenerbahce in Turkey. He has become nearly as beloved a figure in that Muslim nation as the Jewish one. That's not to mention the Arabs who play for Israeli clubs like Maccabi Haifa and even represent Israel in international competitions.

On the other hand, sports can provide a relatively harmless vehicle for letting off political steam. During the shah's reign, Iran was the one Muslim nation that bucked the boycott. For a time, the masses could go into the stadium and root hard against Israeli teams and athletes. Naturally, nasty slurs echoed through the crowds.

But the events may have also helped buy the government leeway to pursue a friendlier policy toward Israel. According to one strand of folklore, the Israelis aided their friend the shah by intentionally losing soccer matches against his teams.

Of course, if international sports officials wanted to, they could easily stamp out the anti-Israel boycott. As punishment, athletes could suffer long bans from competition. In the context of the Olympic movement's gentle treatment of genuine dictatorships, this inaction becomes even more obscene.

International sports bureaucrats, it should be remembered, turned a blind eye to Uday Hussein's treatment of his athletes. During his tenure as head of Iraq's soccer federation, Saddam's son subjected losing players to the worst torture. His goons would drag players across pavement until their bare feet turned raw. Then the players were forced to jump in raw sewage.

Even though these human-rights abuses were amply documented, Olympic and soccer officials never really voiced a substantial complaint against them.

Olympic officials, however, have sent Israel a clear message. Two years ago, representatives from various Olympic federations gathered in Kuala Lumpur to prepare for Athens. There were 199 flags, including the Palestinian standard, hanging in the hotel ballroom. Sadly, one was missing.

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