'The story is to make it -- step by step'

MARRAKECH, Morocco — A couple weeks ago, it made headlines worldwide when the Israeli judo team was singled out at an International Judo Federation Grand Slam stop in Abu Dhabi.

The United Arab Emirates banned Israeli athletes from wearing that nation’s symbols, the blue and white colors and the Star of David, on their uniforms; the Israeli flag was not displayed; the Israeli national anthem was not to be played.

What drew comparatively little attention, meanwhile, were the gestures and photos, published on the IJF website, that wrapped up the tournament:

Here was Israeli under-100 kilo bronze medalist Peter Paltchik with the UAE Judo Federation president, His Excellency Mohammad Bin Thaloub Al Darei, and Aref Al-Awani, general secretary of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council, the three of them arm in arm. In another picture: Israel Judo Association president Moshe Ponte, IJF president Marius Vizer, Al Darei and Naser Al-Tameemi, general secretary of the UAE Judo, Wrestling and Kickboxing Federation, all four hand-to-hand, as if they were breaking a huddle, U.S.-football style.

 At the IPIC Arena: Israeli judoka Peter Paltchik with UAE judo federation president His Excellency Mohammad Bin Thaloub Al Darei and Aref Al-Awani// IJF

At the IPIC Arena: Israeli judoka Peter Paltchik with UAE judo federation president His Excellency Mohammad Bin Thaloub Al Darei and Aref Al-Awani// IJF

Along with the photos, there were also apologies — that a UAE athlete, after a loss, had not shaken hands with an Israeli on the tatami, as a judo mat is called.

And congratulations, too — to the Israelis for winning five medals.

It is often said that sport can play a winning role in our world in promoting goodwill and, maybe even, peace. The Abu Dhabi experience serves as a reminder of sport's limits. At the same time, it also vividly illustrates what’s possible — and in particular, with judo.

The photos and gestures that final day in Abu Dhabi came as the IJF celebrated the birthday of judo founder Jigoro Kano, the federation issuing a news release in which Vizer emphasized the import of "courage, respect and politeness," adding, "I hope soon we can break down more barriers for more tolerance between countries and nations to express the real value of the sport, friendship unity and solidarity." 

Two weeks after the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam, the IJF pulled this weekend into Morocco for the 2017 Open World Championships, a highlight of its calendar. The Israelis were here. Normal. Like everyone else. When, for instance, the Israeli athlete Or Sasson took to the tatami in Saturday's second round against France's Cyrille Maret, all was as routine as could be -- Maret in white with French insignia, Sasson in blue with Israeli markings.

 Also wrapping up the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam: Israeli Judo Assn. president Moshe Ponte; IJF president Marius Vizer; Al Darei; Naser Al-Tameemi, UAE Judo, Wrestling, and Kickboxing General Secretary // IJF

Also wrapping up the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam: Israeli Judo Assn. president Moshe Ponte; IJF president Marius Vizer; Al Darei; Naser Al-Tameemi, UAE Judo, Wrestling, and Kickboxing General Secretary // IJF

To be clear:

Sport and politics for sure mix. But sport is not and cannot exercise the authority of a government. Sport bumps up against the ceiling of what governments — for whatever reason — deem permissible.

To be obvious: it is entirely unrealistic to expect a judo tournament to solve a regional conflict ongoing for decades. 

At the same time: sport, particularly Olympic-style sport, is rooted in the notion of fair play and inclusion. The entire point of an Olympic village, for instance, is to break down barriers via one-to-one contact — the young people of the world, all together, more alike than different.

 Ponte at the 2017 Open World Championships in Marrakech 

Ponte at the 2017 Open World Championships in Marrakech 

In Olympic-speak, there’s a word called “universality.” It means, in essence, athletes from all over. Judo is very big on universality — 386 competitors from 138 nations at the Rio 2016 Olympics, for instance. Around the world, some 28 million people do judo.

Judo is also rooted in an ethical code that encourages, among other values, friendship, courage and honor. A fight starts and ends with a bow. A debate about "greatest judoka ever" might start with the likes of France's Teddy Riner, who on Saturday won his 10th straight world title (he hasn't lost since 2010) or Japan’s Yasuhiro Yamashita, a 1984 Los Angeles Games gold medalist; in an interview posted last month on CNN Sport, Yamashita said, "Today, in this fragile world, judo gives us hope to overcome the obstacles of political tension, animosity and discrimination … judo is a bridge that connects the world’s people, culture and countries.”

Vizer, IJF president since 2007, re-elected in August to a new term, has been an outspoken proponent — memorably rattling the International Olympic Committee in 2015 — for fair play. 

 Vizer in Marrakech // Gabriela Sabău, IJF

Vizer in Marrakech // Gabriela Sabău, IJF

He said Sunday in an interview, “We cannot solve a historical problem … which governments and international organizations cannot solve. I try to solve [issues] in a positive way, to have the minimum of loss.”

Because the 2020 Games will be in Tokyo, judo — and everything that goes along with it — figures to be one of the bright lights of the Games, along with track and field and swimming, of course, and newcomers such as surfing and skateboarding. 

In Israel, meanwhile, judo is already Olympic sport No. 1. In its history, Israel has won nine medals. Judo athletes have won five, including two in Rio.

In preparation for Rio, in 2015, the Israelis sought to come to the Abu Dhabi event for the first time. The Emirates does not formally recognize the existence of the state of Israel. Even so, with Vizer working behind the scenes, the Israeli judo team was allowed — finally — into Abu Dhabi: no flags, no symbols, no anthems. The Israelis won two medals.

“Every newspaper, every website is killing me,” Ponte recalled in an interview Sunday. “I’m not doing judo because of the … response of the people. I’m doing judo because I want success.”

He also said, in reference to the on-the-ground hospitality of the hosts, “We were [treated] like kings — more than well-treated.”

The Israelis did not go to Abu Dhabi in 2016. The tour stop is in the fall, thus after the Olympics.

This fall, there was again sound reason to go — the start of another Olympic cycle and, as in 2015, valuable ranking points to go after.

Again, Vizer worked behind the scenes. On Oct. 23, he sent a letter to Al Darei reminding him that both the IJF statues and indeed the Olympic Charter prohibit discrimination. "Therefore," the letter said, “the IJF hereby demands that at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam, all delegations, including the Israeli delegation, shall be treated equally in all aspects, without any exception. IJF further requests that you take all appropriate steps, including if necessary with the public authorities, to comply with IJF”s demand.”

After back-and-forth, the Israelis were let in. But no symbols, flag or anthem.

Among those five medals that the Israelis won in Abu Dhabi: Tal Flicker won gold in the under 66-kilogram category. The IJF anthem rang out in the IPIC Arena. On the podium, Flicker sang the Israeli anthem, Hatikva.

 At Ben Gurion airport upon arrival from the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam with Israeli sports minister Miri Regev, third from left // Oren Ahroni, Yedioth Ahronoth

At Ben Gurion airport upon arrival from the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam with Israeli sports minister Miri Regev, third from left // Oren Ahroni, Yedioth Ahronoth

On his Facebook page, ahead of the tournament, Flicker had written, in Hebrew, “There’s nothing sweeter than the moment of victory, the feeling that you did it for yourself, the family, team and, of course, for the country … a country we represent. I am the most proud in the world to be Israeli.”

When the Israelis returned home, they were met, as if rock stars, by a crowd at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport that included the sports minister, Miri Regev. They gathered around her to sing, again, Hatikva.

 Israel's Or Sasson competing Saturday in Marrakech against France's Cyrille Maret // Gabriela Sabău, IJF

Israel's Or Sasson competing Saturday in Marrakech against France's Cyrille Maret // Gabriela Sabău, IJF

Looking ahead, and as the past few weeks in judo, in Abu Dhabi and Marrakech, have underscored -- in sport, the solution a great deal of the time is to keep working at a solution.

In 2018, Israel is due to stage the European judo championships. One of cycling’s three grand tours, it has been announced, the Giro d’Italia, will begin in Jerusalem in May before moving to two other stages in the country.

The 2018 Abu Dhabi Grand Slam? “The consensus exists,” Vizer said. “From everybody, there has been compromise. It has not been perfect. But the main goal …has been achieved.

“… Now we have to work together to clarify the way.”

Headlines are sexy. Progress takes goodwill. It takes trust. It takes time.

“The story,” Ponte said, “is to make it — step by step.”