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Sporting Boycotts require strong action by roof bodies

May 31, 2023 | Justin Amler

Protestor in Indonesia calling to ban Israel's team from the FIFA U-20 World Cup that Indonesia was meant to host (screenshot)
Protestor in Indonesia calling to ban Israel's team from the FIFA U-20 World Cup that Indonesia was meant to host (screenshot)

Traditional sport comes in many forms, allowing participants to show prowess and skill in a variety of arenas. Something similar – though much less in tune with ideas of nobility and fairness – can be said of the “sport” of boycotting and demonising Israel.

Despite the many variations and styles, these efforts all share a common goal: to isolate and delegitimise the only Jewish country on Earth in the hopes of making it a pariah state, cast out from the family of nations, and thus hopefully contribute to its eventual demise. We see this in music where artists are subject to extreme harassment and intimidation, as well as at cultural events and academic symposiums where participants are also inundated with a barrage of often threatening messages, led or inspired by the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Notorious former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, who has been much in the news over recent weeks, is a leading figure in this movement.

The sporting arena in particular has long been a key battleground for the anti-Israel boycott movement. For decades, Arab and Muslim states blocked the participation of Israeli athletes and teams in competitions, and demanded their own athletes also refuse to compete against Israelis. In recent years, such boycotts have even spread to some non-Arab states under the influence of the BDS movement.

Yet the past few decades have also seen strong pushback in the form of effective punishment by international sporting bodies against such boycotts. These measures have usually proven to be highly effective – yet they are not universal, and some sporting codes have been backsliding. All international sporting bodies really should be upping  their game if these offences against the letter and spirit of sporting competition are to be brought to an end.

 

Historical Anti-Israel Sporting Boycotts

Calls for boycotts of Israeli sporting events, teams, and athletes have persisted for years, presented as a form of protest against what critics claim are Israeli policies toward the “occupied Palestinian territories”. Yet, in reality, these boycotts predate Israel’s control over the territories in question.

Historical examples include Indonesia refusing to allow Israel to participate in the 1962 Asian Games, leading to the International Olympic Committee temporarily revoking Indonesia’s membership. In the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Egypt, Iraq, Cambodia, and Lebanon announced their non-participation in response to Israel’s role in the Suez Crisis. In the 1958 World Cup qualification rounds, Sudan refused to play against Israel.

Sporting Federations Push Back

More recently, the Argentinian football team was forced to cancel its match against Israel in Jerusalem in 2018 due to an unrelenting pressure campaign from Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian Authority’s soccer chief. Rajoub called on fans to burn posters and shirts featuring Argentinian star Lionel Messi. Chichi Tapia, head of the Argentine Football Association, said his players faced serious physical threats. This was echoed by the Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie, who said the threats had even exceeded those of the Islamic State. Rajoub was subsequently sanctioned and suspended by FIFA, the world soccer federation, for inciting hatred and violence.

Israeli tennis star Shahar Pe’er, was denied a visa to play in Dubai in 2009. This led to condemnation from fellow tennis players including Venus Williams and 2008 champion and former world number one Andy Roddick who, as a result of that decision, withdrew from the tournament in solidarity. It also led to the Wall Street Journal dropping its sponsorship of the event.

The Iranian Judo Federation also suffered the consequences in 2019 when judo’s international body, citing “repeated and severe breaches” of its statutes, issued a four-year ban over Teheran’s demands that its athletes refuse to compete against any Israeli athletes.  The ban was sparked in part by the story of former Iranian and world judoka champion Saeid Mollaei, who left the Iranian team during the World Championship in Tokyo, saying he was ordered to throw matches and withdraw from competitions in order to avoid facing Israeli competitors.

Also in 2019, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) stripped Malaysia of the right to host a swimming event due to the country’s ban on Israeli athletes. Initially, in 2017 when the contract with the government was signed, assurances were provided that all athletes would be able to participate without discrimination, but a change in government saw the openly antisemitic Mahathir Mohamad rise again to power and those assurances were withdrawn.

At the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, there were at least two cases of apparent refusals to face Israeli opponents, both in judo.

Sudanese judoka Mohamed Abdalarasool simply didn’t turn up for his match against an Israeli opponent, while Algerian competitor Fethi Nourine announced his withdrawal immediately after the draw was announced pitting him against an Israeli in the second round. Nourine said, “We worked a lot to reach the Olympics… But the Palestinian cause is bigger than all of this.”

Nourine and his coach, who supported Nourine’s withdrawal, were both given bans from competition and sent home.

Finally, echoing its 1962 Asian Games decision, in March this year Indonesia was stripped of the right to host the FIFA under-20 (U-20) World Cup when certain officials, including the Governor of Bali, refused to host the Israeli team. The tournament was subsequently moved to Argentina, nixing Indonesia’s participation as it hadn’t qualified and only the host country is granted automatic entry. This led to a great deal of anger among ordinary citizens and Indonesian players and coaches who accused the authorities of destroying their dreams. Indonesia could still face the same situation again this August with the World Beach Games scheduled to take place in Bali, and several Israeli teams qualifying.

Indonesia’s loss of the FIFA U-20 World Cup is a good example of the kind of necessary and appropriate response for the breach of its commitment to host all qualifying teams, which includes Israel’s. It serves as a painful reminder of the consequences of its actions, and the damage to Indonesia will reverberate for many years both in financial terms as well as the loss of reputation – which can be far harder to recover.

Recent failures to take action

Much less edifying was another story from earlier this year. The South African Rugby Union (SARU) decided to disinvite an Israeli team from participating in a tournament over what the Union said were “security concerns”. There were allegedly “death threats” against members of SARU by anti-Israel activists who had threatened to disrupt the tournament. Bizarrely, rugby’s governing body, World Rugby, ruled that SARU’s decision was not “discriminatory” because security was claimed as the justification. This effectively provides a loophole that could allow countries to bar Israeli teams yet escape effective sanctions.

This echoes other failures to impose effective action in the recent past.

In an ugly scene during the 2016 Rio Olympics, Lebanese athletes physically blocked Israeli athletes from boarding a bus to the Opening Ceremony. Initially, Olympic officials tried to accommodate Lebanon’s intimidating act by trying to pressure the Israelis to board separate busses, before eventually being forced to acquire an additional bus. Despite its actions, the Lebanese delegation was only issued a warning, rather than any kind of meaningful sanction.

This soft approach towards those who have discriminated against Israel at the Olympics cannot help but recall the indelible stain on the Olympic legacy reflected by the fact that it took 44 years from the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics by Palestinian terrorists for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to finally commemorate the Israeli victims at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Meanwhile, as noted above, at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, Sudanese judoka Mohamed Abdalarasool avoided sanctions after refusing to face an Israeli opponent – unlike Algerian competitor Fethi Nourine who did likewise and was banned from future competition. The only difference was that Nourine publicly announced he was boycotting Israeli competitors to support “Palestine”, while Abdalarasool said nothing publicly. This suggests another loophole boycotters can exploit to avoid penalties.

And today, even despite the warming relationship between Israel and some Arab countries through the Abraham Accords, prejudice and animosity towards Israel continue to exist. At the International Fencing Federation World Cup that just concluded in Turkey, Iraqi and Kuwaiti athletes withdrew from the event rather than face their Israeli opponents. It does not appear they will be sanctioned.

Sport should serve to unify people, but the discrimination against Israeli athletes is completely contrary to both the spirit of sport, and almost universally, the rules of competition. Tragically the fans of the game and the players themselves are the ones who will always suffer the most, denied by the radicalism of officials and athletes determined to live in the prejudices of the past.

The solution appears simple: strictly and consistently enforce the existing rules against such political boycotts across all sporting codes. Experience has shown this approach usually works. This is why the recent examples of backsliding in terms of enforcement of these rules – in rugby, fencing and at the Olympics – has been so disappointing.

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