The Israeli Olympic team has returned from Rio with two bronze medals, both for judo. This almost equals Israel’s best medal haul in any Olympic Games to date. Twice before Israel has earned two medals although, on the previous occasions, one medal was either a silver or gold. Unfortunately, however, the most talked-about story in Israel relating to the games has nothing to do with the medals that were brought home. Instead, the legacy of the Rio Olympics in Israel will always be the handshake that never was.
This of course relates to the judo bout between Israel’s Ori Sasson and Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby. The incident began long before the bout when, we are advised, El Shehaby indicated that he was not willing to fight an Israeli opponent. He had been encouraged by fans on social media not to fight the Israeli in this bout. Some reports suggest that the Egyptian authorities forced El Shehaby to partake in the bout, against his will. This all seems somewhat strange for an athlete at the peak of his career. It is assumed that the opportuntity to participate in, and excel at the Olympic Games is almost unrivaled as an ambition of any athlete. The story published in some media says that El Shehaby decided to retaliate against being forced to participate, and this came in the form of a refusal to shake hands with Ori at the end of the match. Sasson had been warned of this situation beforehand, but still approached his vanquished opponent at the end of the fight for a handshake that was rejected by the Egyptian.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) intervened and found that the Egyptian athlete had acted contrary to the rules of fair play and against the spirit of friendship embodied in the Olympic Values. They issued the athlete with a reprimand. The Egyptian Olympic Committee punished the athlete by sending him home from the games. This incident followed the “scolding” issued to the head of the Lebanese Olympic delegation in Rio, after he refused to allow the Israeli team onto their bus that they were due to have shared on the way to the opening ceremony. And also came after the incident involving the Saudi Arabian judoka who withdrew from a bout, when it became clear that the winner of her bout would have to fight against an Israeli in the next round.
Even though these incidents, particularly the rejection of Ori Sasson’s handshake, made news around the world especially on social media, none of them come as a huge surprise to Israelis. Despite the ideals of the Olympic Movement to promote peace and cooperation between peoples around the world, Israelis have always known that these ideals do not necessarily extend in equal measure to them. The terror attack at the Munich Olympic Games, in 1972 in which 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team and a German police officer were killed, is clear evidence of that. It is not so much about the terror attack itself – it is well known that terror groups around the world will use every possible way of getting to Israelis to sow fear amongst them. It is rather about the response by the IOC to this incident. It is inconceivable that it took until 2016 for the IOC to finally agree to officially honour the slain members of the Israeli Olympic team at a games in any way. Why would it take 44 years to do this? Who would have opposed the request made many years ago by the Israeli delegation to officially honour those who were killed? And why?
It is notable that the most prominent anti-Israel incident at the Rio Games, the incident with El Shehaby, came from an athlete representing a country with whom Israel does have diplomatic relations. Despite the concept and tradition of the “Olympic Truce” which calls for athletes to be allowed right of safe travel to and from the Games, Israel will expect representatives of countries like Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, with whom there are no diplomatic relations, not to agree to travel on the bus with her athletes. This is clearly in direct contravention of the Olympic ideals. But it is more surprising when the greatest protest comes from a so-called friendly country. While it is noted that the country’s Olympic Committee and other official bodies came out against the actions of the individual athlete, it seems as though El Shehaby received a huge amount of unofficial support for his actions from fellow Egyptians.
Israel and Egypt signed their peace treaty 37 years ago. More than a generation has elapsed since then, and yet their athletes still refuse to shake hands with Israel’s athletes at the Olympic Games. It is true that the peace has not been a truly warm peace, and there have been awkward times when the peace agreement looked like it was in grave danger. It is nevertheless a peace treaty between countries that are neighbours, and comes with full diplomatic relations. Was this refusal from an athlete who was born after the peace treaty was signed, a product of the education that he received? I cannot imagine one Israeli athlete who would refuse to shake the hand of any opponent, no matter which country they come from. Even from those countries that are insistent on wanting to destroy Israel.
It is ironic that the Israeli athletes travelling to the opening ceremony were willing to travel with the Lebanese delegation in the way that the organisers had intended. After all, Lebanon is a country that has been at constant war with Israel for the past 68 years, and has tried to destroy Israel on numerous occasions. It is even more ironic that the Israeli team had to refuse to be split up and reallocated onto a number of other buses due to security concerns associated with the team being split up. With the ramifications of Munich still resonating in their ears, the Israeli team was ordered by their security team to remain together until the organisers laid on an alternative bus in which the entire team could travel together along with their required security escort. Perhaps the greatest irony of all, is the fact that the security of the entire Olympic Games in Rio was left to a group of 36 Israeli companies to take care of.
With anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment rife around the world, Israeli athletes went to the Olympic Games in Rio to find a relative safe haven from the turmoil. If everybody adhered to the ideals of the Olympic Movement, this is what they would have found in Rio. But this was not the case at all. They found in Rio the same anti-Semitic behaviour that has become openly acceptable in football stadiums in Europe, and in the General Assembly of the United Nations. And this from countries with whom Israel has diplomatic relations. This puts the achievement of our athletes in earning two bronze medals into the proper context. Kol hakavod!