Seeking to separate politics and sports ignores the reality of war

Egypt’s Islam El Shehaby reacts during a match with an Israeli athlete at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Egypt’s Islam El Shehaby reacts during a match with an Israeli athlete at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Egypt and Lebanon have received extensive media coverage during the Rio Olympics, not because of their athletes’ sporting achievements (of which there is little to celebrate), but because of the political controversy surrounding their actions.

Headlines dominating the games include Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby refusing to shake the hand of his Israeli opponent Or Sasson, and the Lebanese team’s refusal to share a bus with their Israeli counterparts.

This has led to renewed calls for politics to be separated from sport, and specifically from one of the world’s greatest international sporting events. On the surface this may sound perfectly reasonable, but a look at the history of international sport – and of the Olympics in particular – shows that such calls are unrealistic, hypocritical, and in some important cases, even detrimental.

It is worth looking first at the specifics of the two incidents in Rio, then at the bigger picture. Much of the coverage of, and reaction to, both incidents has been selective and manipulative, to the extent that it can be reasonably argued that the way they have been portrayed is more politicised than the events themselves.

In both cases, while the focus was on the refusal of the Egyptian and Lebanese athletes to “normalise” relations, there was much less attention to other, salient facts. In explaining his decision not to shake Sasson’s hand, El Shehaby said: “I have no problem with Jewish people or any other religion or different beliefs. But for personal reasons, you can’t ask me to shake the hand of anyone from this state, especially in front of the whole world.”

That his stance was based on politics rather than religion shows maturity and principle, and is something to be commended rather than derided.It also ignores how his stance was received in Egypt.

With regard to the Israeli-Lebanese incident, it was Israel – not the Lebanese athletes – that injected religion into the mix, its culture and sports minister throwing the baseless and manipulative accusation that “it is anti-Semitism pure and simple, and the worst kind of racism”.

The International Judo Federation said there is no obligation to shake hands, and praised the fact that the match between El Shehaby and Sasson took place at all, saying: “This is already a big improvement that Arabic countries accept to [compete against] Israel.”

Indeed, the pressure El Shehaby came under from across the spectrum in Egypt to boycott the fight has been largely overlooked. So too has the fact that Lebanon and Israel have no diplomatic ties and are still technically in a state of war.

Athletes in international sports represent their countries. As such, it is one thing to accept to compete against a country with which your own has tensions or is in open conflict. However, it is quite another to act in a way that negates that reality. Egypt may have a peace agreement with Israel, but its people still staunchly oppose Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.

The situation is even starker for Lebanese athletes. Why should they share a bus with representatives of a country that has occupied Lebanese territory, invaded, bombed and devastated their homeland, and regularly violates its airspace?

The Israeli athletes were the belligerent party after all, insisting on boarding a bus that was reportedly reserved for their Lebanese counterparts, then insisting that the Lebanese leave the bus for refusing to share it, even though they were already on board. This was an arrogant, ridiculous and needless ultimatum that was bound to be rejected as the sporting equivalent of another Israeli invasion.

That did not stop the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a US news agency, misleadingly reporting that the Israeli athletes were “kicked off” the bus (they never boarded it) and Israeli athletes claiming to be the aggrieved party and not looking for trouble.

Similarly, Sasson says his coaches warned him that El Shehaby may not shake his hand. As such, even if the Israeli’s intention was not to show up his Egyptian opponent, he may not have been displeased by the outcome, which entailed El Shehaby being booed by the crowd. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu certainly revelled in the incident, saying Sasson “succeeded, he extended his hand. That’s the beautiful Israel”.

This typifies Israel’s response to normalisation efforts. It manipulates successful efforts as a means of legitimising and whitewashing its policies. If its efforts fail, it portrays itself as a rebuffed, peace-seeking victim of irrational belligerence.

It is a win-win scenario for Israel, one that points to the fact that normalisation is not neutral and in fact carries a political agenda – a particularly deceitful form because its agendas are often masked by the veneer of moderation and benevolence.

In general, it is far easier for an aggressor to make symbolic overtures than for the victim to accept them.

Besides the perfectly legitimate personal reasons the Egyptian and Lebanese athletes may have had for spurning their Israeli counterparts, they would also have had to consider the national dimension.

The choice between fleeting international praise and lasting domestic wrath is a no-brainer, not least when an athlete can leave the Olympics empty-handed but still return home to a hero’s welcome.

All these considerations are by no means limited to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Since international sporting events involve national teams, they are bound to reflect international and even intra-national relations.

And since they are globally broadcast, it is natural for athletes, governments or campaign groups to use them as platforms to highlight certain causes or grievances. Indeed, almost every Olympics in modern history has involved political controversy and boycotts, the vast majority unrelated to the Middle East.

Over the last century, political events that have shaped the Olympics include the two world wars, the Cold War, Chinese-Taiwanese tensions, the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Afghanistan, the civil rights movement in the United States, the Russian-Georgian war, repression in China and Russia, and South African apartheid.

South Africa, in fact, was banned from 1964 until 1992 as part of the wider sporting ban against it in protest over its apartheid system, whose downfall came after international isolation. This is one example of politicising sport that is not only uncontroversial but also moral.

It is a pity, then, that opposition to sporting normalisation with Israel – which has its own apartheid system, hinders Palestinian sport and displays rampant anti-Arab racism in its own sports industries – is frowned upon.

Sport is such an important part of many countries’ culture that it is an effective tool of pressure in times of repression or conflict. If it contributes to ending injustices and abuses, that should be encouraged and applauded.

One cannot expect Arab nations to keep politics out of sport when Israel, many other countries worldwide and even the International Olympic Committee do not.

Sharif Nashashibi is a journalist and analyst on Arab affairs

Published: August 18, 2016 04:00 AM


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