Olympic Bigotry

Targeted due to its long standing national conflicts, during the 2016 Olympic Games several delegations treated Kurdish athletes with bigotry and discrimination. Representatives from countries with interests in its conflicts refused to share a bus, shake hands, and in some cases even compete against Kurdish athletes in an effort to delegitimize the very existence of a Kurdish nationality. Among others:

1.       A Syrian boxer refused to compete against a Kurdish boxer in a precondition fight required to qualify for the Olympics due to Syria’s reluctances to recognize the autonomous Syrian Kurdistan and its borders.

2.       Lebanese Olympians refused to ride a bus with Kurds due to its ethnic and religious affiliation with Syria and Iran who vigorously reject Kurdish nationalism.

3.       An Egyptian judoka refuses to shake hands with Kurdish Judoka. Despite peaceful relationship between the two people the Egyptian Judoka disagreed with the Kurdish acts in Syrian and Turkish conflicts and decided to protest, earning praise from Egyptian media.

4.       Saudi Judoka forfeits a match to avoid contest with a Kurd. Though in most cases Saudi Arabia and the Kurds have mutual interests and cooperation the Judoka was worried of public’s reaction at home that oddly sees the Kurds as an enemy.

The international community was outraged evoking condemnations from dozens of countries’ officials and sports organizations. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) forced the Lebanese to share the bus, fined its delegation and sent the head of the delegation home due to his prominent role in the incident. The Egyptian Judoka was sent home and fined. The IOC also announced that any delegation which one of its members refuses to compete against any other delegation’s member will be immediately disqualified from further participation in current games. Any systematic “injuries” will be investigated and 100% “injury” rate against another nationality will be presumed deliberate and will result in disqualification as well. Since the Kurdish people usually evoke sympathy, you must be quite angry, but probably satisfied with the response of the international community and the IOC.

However, as you might have guessed this story is not true.

In fact the Kurds have yet to achieve an independent state and thus don’t have a national delegation to the Olympics. Yet if you replace the word ‘Kurds’ with ‘Israelis’ you’d get a quite accurate description (with some differences) of the hostility towards the Israeli delegation. Except that in reality, the reaction of the international community and the IOC was less unequivocal. Rather, the IOC booked another bus for the Israeli delegation and settled for a warning of similar incidents, basically allowing the Lebanese to throw the Israelis off the bus. No action against future refusal to compete was taken nor against the ridiculous injury epidemic prevalent among Arab athletes when they’re supposed to compete against Israelis. Though the Egyptian Judoka was sent home, this was largely technical as his part in the games was already done and he was scheduled to go home anyway. The international reaction was left mostly to the media and social networks despite the fact that this has been one of the most public and extreme expressions of bigotry in an international sports arena in recent years.

As sympathetic as one might be with the Palestinians, oppose Israeli policies or even its very existence, it just doesn’t justify nor explain the bigotry seen in the 2016 Olympics. No other conflict, out of the hundreds of armed and political conflicts around the world, seems to extract such hostile emotions from Olympic athletes. None of the Middle Eastern athletes seems to have a problem competing against Russia or the U.S, both heavily involved in Syria and Iraq conflicts, or against each other despite their internal conflicts (Iran-Saudi, Saudi-Yemen, Turkey-Iraq and more). North Korea is another interesting example, an undisputed human rights violator, dictatorship and threat to western societies, competed against France, Germany, Japan, Australia, Sweden and yes, even against South Korea. In sum, no political conflict publicly impacts the 2016 Olympic sportsmanship as the Israeli-Palestinian. A conflict of a couple hundred casualties a year led the Saudis, who have as much to do with the conflict as they have with human rights, to forfeit a match and the Egyptians, who are at peace with Israel (so much for peace), to publicly snub an opponent.

Ask yourselves, why do the Israelis deserve the privilege of this special treatment? I find it truly puzzling that in a region where in 2015: Iraqi civil war had 21K fatalities, Syrian civil war 55K fatalities, Yemeni crises – 6K, Libyan crises 2.7K, Egypt (Sinai) – 2.5K and so on, the people of the region care so much about a conflict of roughly 200 fatalities and where Muslims, despite what some might think, continue to have religious freedom and control of their holly cites. What makes people, especially in the Middle East, passionate about this conflict more than any other in the world?
On another issue, a completely unrelated one (right?!), according to the ADL, Middle East and North Africa region is the most Anti-Semitic region in the world, scores 74% in their Index of Anti-Semitism, three times higher than any other region. The Jewish population in the region is less than 0.01%, meaning the vast majority of the people in the region have not seen a Jew in their lifetime and yet they have prejudice against Jews. Clearly, preoccupation with Jews and using violent rhetoric in official public media has an impact on the value the public attributes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

If Israel is the only country in a conflict that suffers from bigotry and lack of sportsmanship in these Olympic Games, let’s not pretend that it is because its specific conflict is somehow special, or it’s because Israelis adopted Arab Hummus. It’s Anti-Semitism at its best that makes such minor conflict so inciting, and everyone lets it be because it’s just not cool, enlightened and progressive to sympathies with Israel.

About the Author
Eitan Gor is a business professional with an addiction to politics to which writing serves as an effective outlet. Eitan is an MBA graduate from MIT Sloan where he served as a co-president of the Sloan Jewish Students Organization.