In a civilized world, it is universally recognized that sport transcends politics. And while nationalism has its place in international sport, the Olympics is, and should be, a celebration of the immense personal discipline, dedication, sacrifice, and love of sport exhibited by the thousands of athletes competing across 28 different sports.
In a civilized world, politics ends at the playing field’s edge. Unfortunately, in Rio, the uncivilized world doesn’t seem to care.
It began even before the opening ceremony. The head of the Lebanese delegation refused to allow the Israeli delegation to board the same bus to the opening ceremony.
Note to IOC organizers: you won’t be handling seating arrangements at my wedding.
The madness continued on Friday when Israeli Judo Olympian Or Sasson made quick work of Egyptian Judo athlete Islam El Shehaby in the first round. Sasson quickly approached El Shehaby and attempted to shake his hand in a show of sportsmanship. El Shehaby back-peddled with his head turned so as not to make eye contact with Sasson. To Sasson’s credit, he doubled down on his handshake attempt, only to watch El Shehaby storm off the platform altogether.
Why should we be surprised? For years, Arab and Muslim athletes have exhibited this sort of unsportsmanlike behavior, and worse, toward their Israeli counterparts.
Take the case of Israeli wrestler Ilana Kartysh. In 2013, she faced off against Egyptian Enas Youssef Khourshid. Ilana won the competition, but that was not the headline. Mid-bout, Enas had wrapped her arms around her opponent’s back. With her chin comfortably hanging over her back, Enas decided to sink her teeth into Kartysh’s back, drawing blood; an act that would make Mike Tyson proud.
Yet another example is Ramadan Darwish, an Egyptian Judoka who refused to shake the hand of his Israeli counterpart Arik Ze’evi. After Ze’vi defeated him, Darwish refused to bow, a major sign of disrespect in martial arts. The Islamic Republic of Iran has a long history of forcing its international sportsmen to withdraw from competitions with Israeli opponents.
These incidents are a far cry from past instances of international sport clashing with international politics. In 1936, Jesse Owens, an African American track and field star, went into Adolf Hitler’s Munich games and beat “the master race.” In 1972, the Americans sent Bobby Fischer to face Russian Boris Spassky at the height of the cold war. When Fischer was asked why he was being sent, he said, “So we can beat the Russians.” Could you imagine the U.S. Men’s Olympic basketball team refusing to take the court against the Russians at the 1972 Olympics?
An Arab culture that fosters fear, hate, and ignorance is surely to blame for the vile displays of unsportsmanlike conduct toward Israeli athletes in recent years. To be an Olympian means so much more than running fast, jumping high, or breaking a world record. An Olympian possesses a rare ability to dedicate himself or herself to an outcome that is all but certain, to respect the process, and to accept the results. A true Olympian respects her opponent, knowing full well exactly what she had to go through to get to where she is.
Islam El Shehaby and many of his Arab counterparts may be tremendous athletes. But Olympians they are not.