Put yourself in Yarden Gerbi’s shoes.
With one of her most important events of the year coming up, the decorated judoka found herself in the middle of a storm that would ultimately overshadow her achievements on the mat.
The 26-year-old former world champion has spent all her life representing Israel in honor, but on Saturday she found herself under fire for something completely out of her control.
The decision to compete at the Judo Grand Slam in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates despite not being allowed to do so under the Israel flag brew a storm which looks set to continue to rage long after most people will remember Gerbi actually claimed a bronze medal in the women’s under-63 kilogram event.
Israel’s Sagi Muki also took a bronze in the men’s under-81kg competition, but all the headlines were dominated by the fact Israel’s judokas didn’t have the Israel flag on their judo uniform as they do in every other event across the world, with the delegation taking part in the Grand Slam as representatives of the IJF (International Judo Federation), not having ISR (Israel) by their names on the scoreboard or on their backs.
The case for not participating in the event is clear. After all, why should Israel be subjected to sanctions while every other delegation is allowed to compete as usual? On the other hand, what would have been achieved by taking a stand on the matter? Would that have changed anything other than boosting some egos and hampering the Israeli judokas bid to qualify for the Rio Olympics? Israel Judo Federation chairman Moshe Ponte claimed he was forced to accept the request made by the organizers due to security concerns, but that did little to quell the criticism. While the brunt of the critique was leveled at Ponte, there is little doubt the athletes took to heart all that was being said.
“I was so happy when I discovered that we would be able to compete in Abu Dhabi, but when we arrived we found out that we can only compete under the IJF flag due to security reasons,” said Gerbi. “Ponte was in a dilemma but he bravely decided that we should participate anyway.
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“As soon as I knew that I wouldn’t be competing under the Israel flag that really hurt me as a patriotic Israeli. But when I thought about it I decided it was so important to compete because everyone already knows where I come from and winning there is far more important than not competing at all. All those who say it was a disgrace to compete under these circumstances should be ashamed of themselves. I represent my country always, whether they hide my flag or not.”
Politicians stood in line to voice their outrage and score some populist points, with Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev coming out with the strongest remarks.
“The banning of the Israel flag in an international competition of this magnitude is a failure which I will not overlook,” said Regev. “I plan to recruit all the forces in Israel, including the Prime Minister and Israeli diplomacy, in order to prevent a ban on Israeli sport, and the values and symbols of this country. We will not compromise on this matter.
"The athletes are not at fault, they are our ambassadors. We stand behind them and are committed to enable them to raise the flag and sing the national anthem with pride and without fear.”
While there are many who feel the delegation shouldn’t have agreed to take part in Abu Dhabi while not being allowed to do so under the Israel flag, there are others who felt this weekend’s developments were no less than a breakthrough in relations between Israel and the Arab world.
“We left for Abu Dhabi with many question marks and doubts and we return with a lot of hope,” Ponte said upon the delegation’s return on Monday.
“After many deliberations I decided that the athletes should compete in the event despite this restriction and I take full responsibility for that. I hope that next year we will compete there under the Israel flag.”
The president of the International Judo Federation, Marius Vizer, said he hoped that the geopolitical situation would improve so that Israeli judoka would be able to compete in the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam next year without any hindrance.
“Every step you take can be seen in either a negative or a positive light. We definitely see what happened here in Abu Dhabi as positive,” said Vizer. “It is the case for the athletes themselves, who made history, and it opened a door for the future.
“Organizing an event here and all over the world on the World Judo Tour is not only about promoting judo, but also about promoting our values among the youth,” added Vizer. “Seeing the young people from Abu Dhabi cheering for the Israeli judoka is definitely a step forward. What politics cannot achieve, sport and judo can.”
Vizer and Ponte concluded a joint press release by saying: “Our sport needs heroes. We don’t need martyrs. The Israeli judoka are heroes as is anyone else who was involved to make their participation in the Grand Slam possible.”
Heroes or not, they most certainly don’t deserve to be vilified.
Israel’s athletes regularly suffer due to their nationality and the last thing they need is to defend themselves from their own countrymen and women. Ponte is the one who made the controversial decision, which will only be proven right or wrong with time.
It may become a worrying precedent repeated in other competitions in Arab countries. On the other hand, it could prove to be a turning point in Israeli participation in sporting events in hostile countries, which Israelis were previously completely barred from entering.
The International Olympic Committee’s recent action to revoke Olympic Qualification status of the Asian Shooting Championship in Kuwait due to its refusal to issue a visa for Israeli Yair Davidovich – who was supposed to be the technical delegate from the International Sports Shooting Federation – showed the global sporting committee is finally taking notice of a problem that has long existed.
Instead of playing the blame game and pointing fingers, it would be best for all local parties to combine forces.
Israeli athletes don’t deserve to be placed in situations where they are questioned if they are putting their careers ahead of their love for their country.
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