Abu Dhabi of gold

For many years, the toxic mixing of sports and politics went unchallenged. But in recent years that began to change.

Miri Regev (C) visits Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, October 29, 2018 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Miri Regev (C) visits Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, October 29, 2018
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Hatikvah” played for the first time in the United Arab Emirates this week, as judoka Sagi Muki claimed victory at the Judo Grand Competition in Abu Dhabi. Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who was in Abu Dhabi to witness the historic event, congratulated him.
“We made history; the people of Israel live,” she wrote on social media.
Israel has sent its best judokas to compete in the Gulf state. Gili Cohen, Baruch Shamailov and Timna Nelson Levy won bronze medals on Saturday. On Monday, Judoka Peter Paltchik also won gold in the under-100 kg. weight category. Once again, the national anthem played. Regev congratulated him, speaking of his historic journey to Abu Dhabi.
“The members of the delegation proved superiority throughout the contest by winning five medals. The whole team showed a tremendous fighting spirit,” she said.
Ordinarily, a sports competition would come and go without such fanfare. But for Israel, sports in the Middle East and in many Muslim countries has been more about politics than athletics. In 2016, an Egyptian judoka refused to shake the hand of Or Sasson at the Rio Olympics. He had allegedly been subjected to attacks on social media by Islamist extremists who said that shaking hands would be a “shame” for Muslims. Israel condemned the incident as going against the spirit of the Olympics.
In November 2017, an Iranian wrestler threw a match to a Russian wrestler so he wouldn’t have to face an Israeli. He was banned for six months for the behavior, which took place at the U-23 World Championship in Poland. Iran’s regime was pleased with him for his “noble and heroic actions.” Iranians have often refused to compete against Israelis. In Beijing, an Iranian wouldn’t even put a toe in the same pool as an Israeli, and in 2004, in Athens, a judoka refused to compete with an Israeli.
For many years, this toxic mixing of sports and politics went unchallenged. It was quietly understood that Israeli athletes would be banned from competitions in most Muslim countries and that some athletes would purposely not face Israelis. Alone among the world’s countries, Israeli athletes were seen as unacceptable, and too often major sports organizations turned a blind eye.
But in recent years that began to change. Tunisia intended to ban a seven-year-old Israeli chess player from competition – and because of it, the World Chess Federation sought to prevent the country from hosting the international competition this year. Israelis were also barred from Saudi Arabia during another international chess competition last year.
The UAE has not always been as welcoming, either. In 2009, Shahar Peer was denied a visa to compete in Dubai during the Sony Ericsson World Tennis Association Tour. She received support from the WTA and said at the time that “a redline was crossed for every athlete in the world; politics should be kept separate from sports.” Then in October 2017, during the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam judo tournament, the organizers refused to play “Hatikvah” when Tal Flicker won gold in the under-66 kg. division. The Israeli flag was not raised and he had to sing the anthem by himself at the medal ceremony. Another team member, Gili Cohen, won the bronze medal and did not get to see the flag or hear the anthem. Overall, five Israelis had competed and had to go under the flag of the International Judo Federation, rather than the Star of David.
But things are beginning to change. Sporting officials from the UAE apologized to Israeli athletes after one opponent refused to shake hands with Tohar Butbol, an Israeli who won bronze that year. Israel Judo Association president Moshe Ponte met with Mohammad Bin Thaloub Al-Darei, president of the UAE’s Judo federation, according to reports. The fruits of that positive meeting were seen this year, as Israelis were treated like other athletes and honored as they picked up medal after medal.
Regev’s dignified visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was one of “unity and peace,” she said. She opened new doors, expanding on the success in sporting with a message of optimism about Israel in the Gulf. Coming on the heels of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Oman and Ayyoub Kara’s trip to Dubai on Monday, a new era seems to be dawning on the region.