In Rio, Olympic-sized politicization of sport

In Rio

While Israel celebrates its first medal-winner at the Olympics in eight years, some of the other stories coming out of the Summer Games at Rio De Janiero have not been so uplifting.

The Olympics should be a forum where politics are set aside and countries can send their best athletes to compete against one another on a level playing field and without prejudice.

Unfortunately, even before it had started, the Rio Olympics had been spoiled by unsportsmanlike behaviour against Israeli athletes, political smears and swipes and other politicizations completely against the spirit of the Olympic Games.

Last week, Lebanese athletes physically blocked Israeli athletes from boarding a bus to the Opening Ceremony. Initially, Olympic officials humiliatingly tried to accommodate Lebanon by pressuring the Israelis to scatter their team onto empty seats among several other buses, before eventually procuring an additional bus. The International Olympic Committee issued a warning to the Lebanese delegation over the incident. 

Elsewhere at Rio, in what has unfortunately been come to be seen over the years as all too common behaviour for athletes from Arab countries, a Saudi competitor forfeited a first-round Judo match when she learned her adversary would be an Israeli. Professor Gerald Steinberg, head of the watchdog group NGO Monitor, reflected in an opinion piece for the Jerusalem Post published on August 11 that many Israelis have experienced this sort of “petty apartheid” abroad, and not only in sports.

Not all of the news out of Rio was negative, however. Two days before the Rio Games opened, the IOC held its first-ever commemoration of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. 

The ceremony was held at the “Palace of Mourning”, a memorial site in the Olympic Village set up to commemorate – not only the victims of Munich but also two victims of a bomb attack at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and a luge athlete who was killed in an accident while competing in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

A “moment of reflection” will also be held at the closing ceremony.

This is something the families of the Munich victims have long been pushing for in the face of considerable resistance from within the Olympic movement.

Meanwhile – at the same time that the IOC has finally taken steps to honour the memory of the Israeli victims of terror at Munich, the Palestinians have gone in the other direction, appointing Fatah strongman Jibril Rajoub, a convicted terrorist and an unapologetic supporter of terrorism, to head their delegation to the Games.

As Israel Hayom columnist Nadav Shragai noted:

Jibril Rajoub — former head of the Palestinian Preventive Security Force and a contender for the leadership of the Palestinian Authority after President Mahmoud Abbas’ time is up, an avowed supporter of terrorism who has incited to murder even during this most recent wave of terrorist violence — was the man chosen by the Palestinians to head their Olympic committee…
The man who openly supported terrorism and this year congratulated murderous terrorists on Palestinian television broadcasts, the man who swore only a few years ago that if the Palestinians ever had a nuclear weapon, they would use it immediately (against Israel), will be walking around in a tie in the next few days, smiling at cocktail receptions during this sporting event that symbolizes unity among nations and bridges to peace.

In the US, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby also criticised the choice of Rajoub to lead the Palestinian delegation.

Both Shragai and Jacoby credited a timely report on Rajoub by the media monitoring watchdog Palestinian Media Watch as source material for their articles. That report, released late last month ahead of the Olympics, scrutinised examples of Rajoub’s historical incitement and cynical use of sports in particular as a medium to attack Israel (in particular, his repeated use of fabricated or misleading and exaggerated allegations against Israel to attract media attention). PMW’s report can be downloaded here.

Speaking of misleading allegations, a recent Reuters story about a Palestinian swimmer competing in the Olympics made waves with the following claim:

“Use of superior Israeli facilities and training partners in nearby Jerusalem where there are several Olympic-sized pools and many swimmers, has not been possible due to the long-standing conflict with Israel.”

This comment prompted a response on Facebook by COGAT, the IDF department responsible for liaising with the Palestinian Authority.

FACT CHECK: Mary al-Atrash CAN train for the Olympics in Jerusalem, if she ever applied for a permit.
The Olympic candidate, Mary al-Atrash, claimed she cannot train for the Rio Olympics due to “Israeli Restrictions”. However, we found Mary never applied for a permit to train in Jerusalem in the first place.

The story also claimed:

The 22-year-old university graduate’s preparations have been hampered because she does not have an Olympic-sized pool to train in. There are none in the Palestinian territories and she has to settle for a 25-metre pool.

This created quite a stir because there are indeed existing pools in the West Bank and Gaza that have claimed – by Palestinians themselves – to have been built to Olympic dimensions. (For example, see this story from Ma’an about a pool in Gaza in 2010 and a hotel in Jericho has a pool that is actually larger than Olympic dimensions.

However, after some debate on social media, it appears that, ultimately, there may not be a pool built precisely to Olympic full-length competition specifications anywhere in the Palestinian Authority. To this, Ya’akov Katz, the new Managing Editor at the Jerusalem Post, had the following exchange with Reuters Jerusalem Bureau Chief Luke Baker:



(In an effort to get to the bottom of the story, Katz and another Post reporter subsequently visited pools in the West Bank to gather first-hand information on the pools. The follow-up story appeared in the Jerusalem Post on August 11 and included pictures of two of the West Bank’s best competition training pools, while also noting that half-Olympic, or 25-meter pools – the type available in the West Bank and Gaza – are routinely used by international athletes, even in the United States, as Olympic training facilities when full-length pools are unavailable or too far away to be conveniently accessed.)

What Baker failed to acknowledge, however, was the misleading nature of the way the story was reported by his organisation. The Palestinian Authority could build a pool to Olympic standards for its athletes with a tiny fraction of the aid it receives but chooses not to. Instead, it prefers to play the victim in stories bemoaning the lack of such a pool before every major world competition in which they compete (see, for example, this story in the Age from nine years ago)

The question why the PA is not held responsible for not building such a pool in territory under their control now for two decades is more than what Baker calls “a v[ery] fair point”. An even more pertinent question is why Reuters chose not to pose such a query to Palestinian officials as part of their article, nor to mention that Israel has offered to make up this deficiency by allowing Palestinian athletes permits to train in Jerusalem, instead of insinuating the opposite.

Ahron Shapiro