At what point do you say enough is enough? How do you know you are making a decision based on important interests rather than personal ego? When sports and politics mix, which should gain precedence? Those questions, and many others, have resulted recently in many sleepless nights for Israel Judo Association chairman Moshe Ponte.
As he faced a decision of what to do regarding the participation of the blue-and-white delegation at the next weekend’s Grand Slam event in Abu Dhabi, Ponte must have surely wondered how he had found himself in this position once more.
Ponte was told that Israel’s representatives to the prestigious event would not be allowed to compete under their country’s flag, just as was the case two years ago.
Ponte was informed that Israel’s 12 judokas won’t be able to have the Israel flag on their judo uniform as they do in every other event across the world, and instead of having ISR (Israel) by their names on the scoreboard and on their backs, they will have to take part in the contest as representatives of the International Judo Federation.
Should an Israeli win a gold medal, the national anthem will not be played.
These are terms no other country has to put up with, and probably few would be willing to accept.
But in Israel’s case, it is becoming a worrying recurrence.
If the organizers in Abu Dhabi can get away with it under the excuse of keeping the Israelis out of harm’s way, why wouldn’t others try? Rather than becoming a turning point in Israeli participation in sporting events in hostile countries, which Israelis were previously completely barred from entering, competing in Abu Dhabi two years ago has set a concerning precedent.
Israel and the UAE do not have diplomatic relations, as is the case with many Arab countries.
Another question which has to be asked is what had been done to prevent this from happening again? Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev furiously announced two years ago that she would call an emergency meeting with the heads of local sports associations to discuss the issue and had asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to help her in the fight to avoid similar incidents in the future.
Both Regev and Netanyahu still hold their positions, so either they never bothered trying or simply failed miserably in their attempts.
Knowing the criticism he would face regardless of the decision he would make, Ponte first approached Regev to offer to pull out of this year’s event. She told him that she doesn’t want Israel’s judokas to suffer as a result and gave him the go ahead to accept the conditions set by the organizers and accepted by the International Judo Federation.
Regev, for her part, sent a letter to International Judo Federation president Marius Vizer.
“This morning, just a few days after I so happily received your invitation to the Judo Grand Slam in Abu Dhabi, I was surprised to learn that members of the Israeli delegation would not be able to appear in this important competition with the identifying symbols of our country - the State of Israel,” read Regev’s letter. “The demand to appear without national symbols is contrary to the mandate of international sports associations, the main aim of which is to separate politics from sport, and strengthen sport as a bridge and connection between peoples, cultures and countries.
“It is the obligation of any country which has the privilege of hosting an international competition to allow the competing athletes to represent the country honorably while ensuring their security.”
Regev, of course, states the obvious, but the real question is can she, and will she, do anything to prevent this from occurring once more.
Ponte is still trying to influence the decision, flying to Croatia on Tuesday to meet with Vizer.
The IJF is most certainly not an anti-Semitic organization and Vizer is in fact considered to be a good friend of Israeli judo.
So how in the world is the IJF willing to accept such preconditions set by the organizers of the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam? Politics and money are of course the answers, with Vizer clearly believing he can’t afford to anger the Arab countries and understanding how the financial investment made by the oilrich Gulf states can promote his sport.
If that results in Israeli judo becoming a sacrificial lamb, so be it.
The IJF should take an example from world sailing’s governing body, which was forced into action after two Israeli windsurfers withdrew from the 2015 world championships due to conditions imposed by Malaysian government authorities.
World Sailing opened an investigation and after finding that requirements by the Malaysian government breached the governing body’s “no-discrimination” regulations, it decided that any bid to host a world championship will have to include an explicit acceptance of the regulations.
As a result, Oman withdrew as host of the 2016 Youth Sailing World Championships, unwilling to submit written confirmation that it would accept the regulations.
Vizer insisted two years ago that he sees “what happened here in Abu Dhabi as positive,” claiming that the athletes made history and “opened a door for the future.”
He went on to speak about how the “World Judo Tour is not only about promoting judo but also about promoting our values among the youth.”
But two years have past since and the only thing the IJF’s actions have taught the youth is that it is okay to discriminate against Israel.
“We will not be dragged into political issues and we will not give a prize to those who don’t want us to compete,” the IJA said. “Our goal is the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and the competitions on the way are a means to achieving this end.
There are those who are trying to get in the way of this and would be happy not to have Israelis at the Olympics, but we will not allow them to disturb us.”
Ponte is doing his job by first and foremost taking care of the interests of the judokas. But he knows all too well that the issue is far more significant than the rankings points they can earn in the event ahead of the next Olympics.
Now that it has become clear that what happened two years ago was not an isolated incident, the issue needs to finally be addressed with all seriousness, mainly by those with international political influence.
It is simply unacceptable that Israeli athletes are only being allowed to compete in major sporting events by agreeing to hide their identity.
The athletes certainly shouldn’t be the ones who pay the price for this, but continuing to accept humiliating requirements simply to partake in events must also be out of the question.