What if they held an Olympic-sanctioned swim meet and a white kid from Canada or the United States or Germany or Norway decided he would not even come near the pool because one of the other competitors was a black racer from South Africa? Imagine the uproar — that’s totally not OK!
What if they held an Olympic-sanctioned track meet and a Hindu runner from India said, no, not even gonna go onto the track because the young woman in the next lane is a Muslim from Pakistan. People would go, what — you can’t do that?!
What if they held an Olympic-sanctioned gymnastics meet and a teenage American girl said, no, not going anywhere near that balance beam because the teen whose feet touched it just before me was North Korean? The mob would be on fire, saying that’s not the Olympic spirit and, besides, what does such geopolitical tension have to do with a sports competition, especially one primarily involving teenage girls?
The three key Olympic values are respect, excellence and friendship. The entire Olympic notion is premised on fair play: no discrimination on grounds of race, religion, gender or politics. When the athletes of the world come together and connect, the ignorance and prejudice that too often fuels stereotype and misconception can fade away, yielding to the essential truth that we — human beings, each and every one of us — are more alike than we are different.
Yet for years, there has been one double standard that has emerged time and again. It is applied, and ferociously, to Israel and Israeli athletes.
In response, sometimes the regulators of international sport have taken action. Often, though, there has been some talk — but nothing more.
On Friday, the International Judo Federation, led by its president, Marius Vizer, said, enough.
The IJF suspended two of its leading events from its calendar, the Tunis Grand Prix in January and Abu Dhabi Grand Slam in October, saying it intends to take a “firm and constructive stance in the fight against discrimination in sport.”
At the 2017 Abu Dhabi event, organizers refused to display the Israeli flag and did not play the Israeli national anthem. When Israeli Tal Flicker won gold in the men’s under 66-kilogram category, the IJF anthem rang out; on the podium, Flicker sang the Israeli anthem, Hatikva. Meanwhile, Flicker and the 11 other Israeli athletes were forced to wear their judogi — their judo uniforms — without the typical identifying national flags and marks.
The Israelis did not go to the Abu Dhabi event in 2016. The United Arab Emirates, like most other Arab nations, does not formally recognize the existence of the state of Israel. The Israelis had come in 2015, a pre-Olympic qualifying year, they won two medals. No flag, symbols, anthems.
Nearly four dozen countries, meanwhile, took part in the 2018 Tunis Grand Prix. Not Israel. In April, World Taekwondo released a statement claiming it “deeply regrets” the ruling of a Tunisian court banning four Israeli athletes from competing at the World Junior Championships in Hammamet, Tunisia.
There is, of course, more, much more evidence to amplify the double standard levied against the Israelis. Herewith a sampling from over the years:
2018: soccer World Cup, the Tunisian men’s team qualifies, appears in Russia, and plays in the group stage — against England, Belgium and Panama. No problem.
2013: Tunisian tennis federation orders Malek Jaziri to withdraw from match against Israeli Amir Weintraub in the quarterfinals of a lower-tier ATP event in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
2013: Israeli swimmers at a World Cup stop in Dubai are not properly identified, either by announcers or on the scoreboard; that way, their name and the flag does not have to be shown. A couple days later, at another World Cup stop, in Doha, the Israeli flag is not displayed in the computer graphics of televised races; some races in which Israelis swim are not broadcast; the Israeli flag is removed from outside the venue.
2012: Algerian kayaker Nasreddine Baghdadi withdraws from a World Cup event in which Israeli Roei Yellin is entered, and the president of the Algerian Olympic Committee, Rachid Hanifi, says, looking ahead to the London Games: "There is an obligation to ask our government if we have to meet Israel in sport."
2010: Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, Gili Haimovitz of Israel wins when Mohammed Soleimani of Iran proves a no-show, claiming he aggravated a leg injury. Soleimani skips the medals ceremony, missing the Israeli flag and anthem.
2009: Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer refused a visa for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
2008: Beijing Games, Iran’s Mohamed Alirezaei refuses to compete alongside Israeli swimmer Tom Be’eri in the heats of the 100 backstroke.
2004: Athens Olympics, Iran’s judo world champion, Arash Miresmaeli, refuses to take to the mat for a first-round match against Israel's Ehud Vaks in the under-66 kg class. Iranian officials later award Miresmaeli the same $120,000 given its gold-medal winners at those 2004 Games for what is called a "great act of self-sacrifice."
Vizer, IJF president since 2007, re-elected last August to a new term, has consistently sought — including a memorable call-out in 2015 of the International Olympic Committee — to promote fair play in a wide variety of Olympic spheres.
And judo itself is rooted in an ethical code that traces to founder Jigoro Kano and that encourages, among other values, friendship, courage and honor. The IJF, for instance, is deeply committed to what it calls a “Judo for Peace” program that runs a number of projects rooted in “a basic question of humanism” that relies on this essential declaration: “Sport is a vector of peace …”
To be clear, the IJF insistence in this case is Israel but, it must be recognized, extends well beyond.
What federation, for instance, was the first — in 2012 — to recognize Kosovo as a separate county? The IJF. It would not be until 2014 that the IOC would follow. In 2016 in Rio, judo athlete Majlinda Kelmendi won gold in the 52-kg category to give Kosovo its first-ever Olympic medal — and, as it turned out, the 100th national Olympic committee to win an Olympic gold.
In Rio, Vizer said, that to recognize Kosovo was “very fair and very right for the sport.”
It is in that spirit that Vizer had been working for the better part of a year in search of resolution with officials in Tunis and Abu Dhabi.
Vizer holds a recurring Q&A Twitter session at which anyone can ask him virtually anything — he is perhaps the only international sports leader to do so — and the most recent such online get-together, on July 11, featured this exchange at which he offered a telling signal:
"@BentzWatchJudo: Are we finally going to be able to see the Israeli Judoka with their country flags in Abu Dhabi and Tunis?
"@MariusVizer: We are doing our best and our wish is to offer all nations the same rights according to their participation in judo events. From historical, political issues between different nations in the world which basically have to be solved by politicians & international organisations. As judo we are working seriously on this matter #AskVizer"
It’s common sense that the federation would have incentive to seek solution.
For context, the IJF in January 2017 had signed what it called a “landmark three-year deal” to host a Grand Prix in Tunis from 2018-20, marking what it called “Africa’s first annual IJF fixture” on its world tour. Moreover, as anyone can easily learn by a quick search of the website, the IJF treasurer hails from the region.
All the same, as the IJF said in its Friday statement, in line with the sport’s underpinning philosophies and Vizer’s direction, it is “committed to promoting the moral principles and values of judo, Olympism and sport in general,” one of its key statutes declaring, “IJF shall not discriminate on the ground of race, religion, gender or political opinion.”
As Vizer signaled in that Twitter exchange, the statement also said, the IJF is “aware” that “the situation and incidents registered are due to a complex and complicated political and historical context, but we strongly believe that politics should not have any interference in sports and that sports should be a reflection of human respect, understanding and mutual cooperation and that sports, as one of the highest expressions of humanity, should have the power to overcome any other conflict or interest.”
In other words: fair play. Which means: everyone is entitled to be treated equally. Everyone literally means — everyone.
The IJF, the statement said, officially requested organizers in Tunis and Abu Dhabi to provide a government-signed “letter of guarantee” that “all IJF member nations would have the right to participate in their events in equal conditions.”
A mid-July deadline came and went.
The IJF executive committee thus ordered the two suspensions “until government guarantee is given to ensure free and equal participation of all nations …”
Vizer, reached Friday by phone, declined to comment for the record. In Israel, officials similarly declined public comment.