Before Ori Sasson won Israel’s second bronze medal at the Rio Olympics on Friday, an incident following his first fight created an international stir.
Sasson’s defeated opponent, Egypt’s Islam el-Shahabi, refused to shake the Israeli Judoka’s outstretched hand or engage in the traditional mutual bow of respect. This came after el-Shahabi had threatened to refuse to compete altogether. The incident has raised the issue of Arab athletes’ conduct toward Israelis in international sporting events, as part of the larger subject of the intersection between sports and politics when Israel is involved.
MK Yoel Razvozov (Yesh Atid), a former Olympic Judoka himself, spoke to Arutz Sheva about the matter. Razvozov has sent a letter, signed by representatives of all the Knesset factions, to Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), demanding that Israel’s flag never be barred from international competitions, even when they’re held in Arab nations.
“As far as I’m concerned, when one of our athletes competes and then stands on the podium without an Israel flag, but rather the flag of an international organization, this constitutes a surrender to terror,” said MK Razvozov, who also serves as Chairman of the Knesset Sports Lobby. “What do the Arab countries want? They want to use the fact that they have a lot of money to hide our flag when they host competitions, to show that they don’t recognize us. This is what happened when athletes from Iran refused to compete against me because they didn’t want to show any recognition of Israel as a state.”
When asked why the world ignores this shameful treatment of Israeli athletes, Razvozov said that “there’s the issue of the money. A country wins the right to host a competition two years in advance, it then invests a lot of money, and and a week before the competition announces it won’t grant visas to the Israeli delegation, or at any rate won’t allow them to compete under the Israeli flag. Sometimes they simply don’t have the flag without having announced anything in advance.”
In his letter to the IOC President, Razvozov says that the practice by international sporting bodies to fly the flag of the body rather than the Israeli flag when an Israeli athlete wins a medal is in violation of the Olympic charter which states that politics must be kept out of sport. The MK says this principle helped him get the signatures of the various other Knesset Members on the letter.
Razvozov was then asked if it might not be more effective to try and garner pressure from an international coalition. The MK said he would consider such a step if the current one bears fruit. He gave the letter to the IOC President directly during a visit to encourage the Israeli delegation in Rio, and also discussed the matter with members of the Olympic Committee.
Later in the interview Razvozov was asked what made Judo into the best source of Olympic medals for Israel. He said it all goes back to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, where Judokas Yael Arad and Oren Smadja won a silver and a bronze medal, respectively. These were the first ever Olympic medals for Israel, and the excitement caused by the achievement resulted in many children throughout the country signing up for Judo classes.
The MK was also asked about the allocation of resources for the various Olympic sports within Israel. Sports such as swimming make it far more difficult to win medals. Even reaching the semi-final round is a good result for an Israeli swimmer.
Razvozov said that while there are many sports where Israel does have the ability to achieve good results if there’s enough of a pool of young athletes competing to get to the highest levels, including swimming and track-and-field. However, for that to happen, “we need to invest in swimming, with more pools. It’s important generally that our children know how to swim and there’s no reason why our athletes shouldn’t succeed in the future.”
As to the failure of Israel’s swimmers in the current Olympics, Razvozov did say that there probably needs to be some sort of inquiry because swimmers who did well in the 2012 London Olympics took a step back and not forward, but he will leave that to the experts.