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Tallha Abdulrazaq

Olympic snubs to Israel must be given the chop

El-Shehaby agreed to face Sasson in a bout governed by the rules of Judo [AFP]

Date of publication: 15 August, 2016

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Comment: Rather than showing respect for the Olympics and to the discipline and etiquette of Judo, Egypt's El-Shehaby played the game, lost, and refused to shake hands, writes Tallha Abdulrazaq.

In the final day of the Judo competition at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Egypt's Islam El-Shehaby faced off against Israel's Or Sasson in what was already promising to be a politically, if not sportingly, electrifying contest.

The two Judoka were both in the 100kg+ heavyweight category, so it was always going to be a bout of titanic proportions. Unfortunately for Egypt, Sasson expertly threw El-Shehaby onto his back and won the contest outright.

Unfortunately, El-Shehaby failed to return the bow offered to him by his victorious opponent, and refused to shake his hand - in what is blatant breach of Olympic values.

Competing with Israel as a controversy

Before I share my thoughts, some Arabs reading this article may now start to suspect me of being an Israeli stooge for criticising El-Shehaby's lack of respect. But I criticise a fellow Arab and Muslim as someone who has a long history of opposing Israeli violations of international law, and as someone who was one of the main leaders of the successful 2009 King's College London student occupation in support of Palestine and Gaza during Israel's horrifying Operation Cast Lead.

With that disclaimer out of the way, Arab insecurities are now manifesting themselves in dishonourable ways that are unbefitting of a people wishing to participate on an equal footing on the world stage, desirous of being respected as equals.

One would think that producing athletes capable of defeating Israeli competitors would be one way to encourage national pride. Not so in Arabia.

Competing against Israel recognises its existence, but that is a political reality that will not change as a result of sports



This partially stems from a long, nationalist Arab tradition of viewing any competition with Israel as "recognising the Zionist entity". But this dated view, filtered down through the generations, does nothing to constructively and productively deal with the realities of Israeli apartheid and war crimes against the Palestinians.

True, competing against Israel recognises its existence, but that is a political reality that will not change as a result of sports. But while Israel apparently "does not exist", according to these critics, several Arab countries - including Egypt - have competed against it militarily in several wars over the past few decades - resulting only in sore defeats and bloodshed.

Saying Israel does not exist is burying one's head in the sand, ignoring the problem and hoping for Palestine to one day be free - while doing nothing to bring this about.

Moreover, and particularly seeing as the athlete in question here is Egyptian, he must surely acknowledge that his country has not only already recognised Israel, but has been in bed with it for a long time - even assisting in its siege against the people of Gaza.

Unsurprisingly, the Egyptian authorities supported El-Shehaby's decision to compete against Israel, saying that politics and sport should be separated. Yet many Arab social media commentators who ascribe to the boycott of competitions against Israel urged him to withdraw, with an Arab news agency conducting a poll the day before the contest asking whether Egypt should compete with Israel.

Some 51 percent of more than 2,200 respondents supported his withdrawal from the contest.

Respect and sportsmanship

Although many sports encourage sportsmanship and mutual respect, perhaps there are few disciplines which have as singular focus on respect and honour as Japanese traditions. Reigi, or formal etiquette, exists in many Japanese arts, not only sports. It is an essential part of one's education in Japanese martial systems, and the modern sport of Judo is no different.

When one decides to practice and compete as a Judoka, one makes a conscious commitment to respecting the rules, decorum and etiquette of the sport. A Judoka should, thus, by default, always show proper respect and courtesy to their opponent whether in victory or defeat, and show due respect to the arena of contest, the referee and spectators.

El-Shehaby was not obliged to shake hands with Sasson, as that is not in the formal Japanese tradition. However, El-Shehaby agreed to face Sasson in a bout governed by the rules of Judo. In doing so, he agreed to abide by the norms of the sport, and he agreed to do so representing his country on the international stage, a praiseworthy act.

By failing to return Sasson's bow, El-Shehaby succeeded in only doing one thing - making Arabs look like sore losers



What is not praiseworthy and is dishonourable is the way El-Shehaby lost. He should have gone into that bout knowing there was a chance that Egypt might lose to Israel, and that he may have to show respect by bowing to a victorious opponent for whom he has distaste because of the political entity he represents.

If he was uncomfortable with the possibility of losing and dealing with the results of such a loss, he should have simply refused to compete. Many Arab athletes have refused to compete with Israelis for political and ideological reasons, and El-Shehaby would have been no different than decades of Arab athletes - and the entire affair would have probably been ignored.

However, by failing to return Sasson's bow, El-Shehaby succeeded in only doing one thing - making Arabs look like sore losers.

I completely empathise with why he did what he did, but he should have borne in mind that he accepted to compete and bind himself to the rules of the sport, and therefore should have at least shown respect to the tournament, the sport and Sasson as an athlete - rather than as a representative of Israel.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues.

Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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