Israeli Athletes Endure Shunning And Hostility At The Olympics

Israeli athletes participating in the 2016 Olympics have faced different types of hostility from competitors from other countries. The Olympics are advertised as an event where political differences are set aside in favor of pure competition. However, over the last few weeks, Israelis have been blocked from entering a bus, had matches against them forfeited, and a handshake was refused.

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Tensions began on the first night of the Olympics. Lebanese athletes waiting to be driven to the opening ceremonies refused to share a bus with Israeli athletes going to the same event. Lebanese officials blocked access to the vehicle until another bus was found to take the Israeli team separately, reported BBC News. Israel and Lebanon have never signed a peace agreement and have no diplomatic relations. There have been repeated military confrontations between Israel and Hezbollah militias in southern Lebanon.

A few days later, a member of Judo team from Saudi Arabia forfeited the first-round match allegedly to avoid facing an Israeli competitor in the next round. The Saudi team disputed the allegations, claiming that Joud Fahmy had sustained injuries during her training, according to the Washington Times. Refusing to participate against Israelis in international competition by Arab states is fairly common, according to the Washington Times.

Just a few months before the start of the Olympics, a Syrian boxer refused to participate in a qualifying match against an Israeli. Ala Ghasoun was candid about his decision, claiming that he refused to recognize the Jewish State and therefore would not compete against one of its representatives. Syria is currently embroiled in a deadly civil war, where thousands have been killed and millions are homeless.

One competition in Judo did take place. Israel’s Or Sasson fought and defeated Egypt’s Islam El Shehaby. After the match, Sasson approached El Shehaby with an outstretched hand, but the Egyptian refused to shake hands. El Shehaby said later that for personal reasons he would not shake hands with anyone from the State of Israel, reported Reuters. The referee did call the Egyptian athlete back to bow to his opponent as is customary. El Shehaby gave a brief nod and walked away. Egypt does have a peace treaty with Israel.

El Shehaby had reportedly been under intense pressure by social and traditional media to not show up to fight Sasson, who went on to win a bronze medal. There was one Egyptian television commentator warning El Shehaby to refrain from fighting the Israeli or face shame from his own nation and Islam, according to the Telegraph.

In the latest news, El Shehaby has been sent home by the Egyptian team, according to the International Olympic Committee. In a statement, the IOC said that competitors are not obliged to shake hands in Judo, but that El Shehaby’s behavior went against the spirit of fair play and friendship. The International Judo Federation claims that having the match even take place was a sign of an improvement over past competitions.

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Israeli athletes have faced hostility in past Olympics and international events as well. At the Athens Olympic Games in 2004, an Iranian Judo competitor forfeited an opportunity for a gold medal when he refused to fight an Israeli. For his action, Iran’s government awarded him $125,000.

In October 2015, an Israeli was denied a Visa to enter Kuwait for the Asia Shooting Championship, an Olympic qualifying competition. The IOC then revoked Kuwait’s Olympic qualifying status for the Rio Games.

Tragedy struck Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. During that event, members of the team were taken hostage by terrorists. Eleven hostages were killed, including six coaches and five athletes. A German police officer was also killed during a rescue operation. For the first time, the IOC held an official public ceremony over the Munich murders just before the start of the Rio Games.

Israel brought its largest delegation ever to an Olympic games this year. They sent 47 athletes, who were involved in 17 different sports. They have won two bronze medals, both in Judo.

[Photo by Markus Schreiber/AP Images]