Ever since the ancient Olympic Games were revived in 1896 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France, they’ve been organized around the exemplary principles of mutual understanding, tolerance, friendship and fair play.
As 11,000 athletes from around the world converged on Rio de Janeiro for this summer’s games, I gamely hoped that these hallowed principles would be scrupulously observed.
The news that the Russian track and field team had been disqualified due to widespread doping gave me reason to think that all athletes would be held to the highest ethical standards and that the Olympic spirit would be vigorously maintained.
But in the last few days, my optimism has been punctured by three egregious incidents.
On August 5, the head of the Lebanese delegation, Salim al-Haj Nakoula, physically prevented members of the Israeli team from boarding a bus taking athletes to the games’ opening ceremony at Maracana stadium. As a result, the Israelis had to find alternative transportation to the venue.
Nakoula, in a blatant lie, told the Lebanese media that the Israelis had been “looking for trouble.”
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
The coach of the Israeli sailing squad, Udi Gal, posted a note on his Facebook page criticizing the Lebanese official for having violated the spirit of the games. In a reference to the International Olympic Committee, Gal wrote, “How is it they let something like this happen … on the opening night of the Olympic Games?”
Subsequently, the International Olympic Committee reprimanded Nakoula for his delegation’s behavior, saying that incidents of this kind would “not be tolerated” again.
On August 7, a Saudi Arabian judoka, Joud Fahmy, forfeited her first-round match against an opponent from Mauritius on the grounds that she had injured herself in training. But according to Israeli news reports, Fahmy dropped out to avoid competing against an Israeli, Gili Cohen, in the next round.
On August 12, Egyptian judoka Islam El Shahaby refused to shake the hand of the Israeli victor, Or Sasson, who defeated him in the first round of the 100kg competition.
Tradition calls for both opponents to bow and shake hands following a bout. But El Shahaby, who apparently had been pressured by social media and Islamic groups to withdraw from the match, flouted both conventions in a display of boorishness.
Sasson was not rattled by the snub. He went on to beat the Cuban Alex Mendoza in the next round, thereby winning the bronze medal in his event. And to no one’s loss, El Shahaby quit the sport altogether.
Frankly, I was less than surprised by the behavior of the Arab athletes, who normally boycott their Israeli counterparts at competitions.
Nevertheless, I was disappointed.
Politics and sports are like oil and water. They are not supposed to mix, particularly at the Olympics. Cuba, which severed diplomatic relations with Israel in 1973, nonetheless set an example of good sportsmanship by allowing Mendoza to take on Sasson.
Arab states, and Iran, should emulate Cuba’s policy, but unfortunately, they stubbornly adhere to their tired old script and force their athletes to avoid contact with Israel. It’s a counter-productive policy which deprives Arab and Iranian athletes of sporting glory and yields no tangible results for the Arab world and Iran.
The International Olympic Committee should not put up with such outdated and retrogressive practices. They go completely against the grain of the Olympic mission statement and tarnish the purity and integrity of the Olympics.
The committee should disqualify nations that contravene the spirit of the Olympics. Olympic teams should be put on notice that their athletes will be barred from competition if, for whatever reason, they choose to boycott fellow athletes.
This odious practice should be met with a firm and unwavering policy of zero tolerance.