The prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, has declared that the two Israeli swimmers who have applied for visas for the World Paralympic Swimming Championships scheduled for the island of Borneo this summer cannot compete there: “We will not allow them to enter. If they come, then it is an offense.”
Meanwhile, the International Judo Federation this week kicks off its 2019 world tour in Tel Aviv. It’s a big meet, a Grand Prix with more than 50 nations and over 400 athletes, as well as the start to a key season aiming toward the world championships in late August in Tokyo, at the legendary Nippon Budokan, site of the first Olympic judo tournament in 1964.
The contrast could not be more obvious, nor more vivid.
The contrast comes after developments in 2018 that again saw judo, under the steady direction of the IJF president, Marius Vizer, take a lead in doing what sport should be doing: make sure the door is open, the rules are equal and nobody gets turned away simply because of who they are or what the flag on his or her uniform looks like.
As Mohammed Meridja, the IJF education and coaching director, said at a rules seminar a few days ago in Austria: “… It’s always good to remind everyone that we are all models, especially for the young generations, and we need to keep that as our core value.”
It is the case that other sports have recognized that Israel is assuredly a normal part of world sport. The first three days of the 2018 Giro d’Italia bicycle tour took place across Israel, starting in Jerusalem last May 4. A pro surf league went to Netanya, north of Tel Aviv, for an event in mid-January.
No sport is perfect, and looking toward the Tokyo Olympics one can foresee potential tensions ahead, even for judo, given potential rivalries. That said, it is also the case that judo, with its emphasis on an honor code on and off the tatami, can unequivocally said to be a leader in the Olympic landscape not just in talking the talk but walking the walk.
Last April, the European judo championships, organized by the European Judo Union, were staged in — Tel Aviv.
In October, at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam, for the first time an Israeli delegation took part under its national flag. The IJF had warned United Arab Emirates organizers the competition would be canceled unless all athletes were treated equally.
At the 2017 Abu Dhabi Grand Slam, in a policy directed only at one team, organizers had banned Israel’s flag and national anthem. Tal Flicker won gold in the men’s under 66-kilogram category but the Israeli anthem, Hatikvka, which means “the hope,” was not played; Flicker sang it himself.
In October 2018, the Israelis were there with the flag on their uniforms. The Israeli culture and sport minister, Miri Regev, came to Abu Dhabi, too. This marked the first time a minister from Israel attended a sports event in the Gulf, according to Israeli officials.
Hatikva was played twice, first for Sagi Muki, who won gold in the men’s under-80 category — press reports said Regev cried hearing the anthem — and then for Peter Paltchik, winner in the men’s under-100 class.
In all, the Israelis won five medals in Abu Dhabi: two gold, three bronze.
Any event is better when the home team does well. To say that the Israeli team — eternally on the road — is excited to have a meet in Tel Aviv would be an understatement.
“After Abu Dhabi,” said Oren Smadja, one of Israel’s first Olympic medalists who has gone on to become a hugely successful coach, “Netanyahu called me,” a reference of course to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Smadja continued, referring to the prime minister: “He told me, ‘Please, I want you to come with your athletes to my office. I want to hug you. I want to say thank you.’ “
Since the Olympic medal successes in Barcelona in 1992 of Smadja and Yael Arad, judo has become something of Israel’s national sport. At the Rio 2016 Olympics, Israel — a country of eight million people — won two judo medals. Same as the United States.
Smadja coaches both Muki and Paltchik; he is also the coach for Or Sasson, winner of a bronze in the men’s plus-100 kilo class in Rio. (The other Israeli medalist in Rio: Yarden Gerbi, bronze, women’s 63-kilo category.)
“When I became a coach and I talked to my athletes,” among them Smadja, said Moshe Ponti, for the past six years head of the Israeli judo federation, “I said, ‘Everybody is the same.’ It depends what you are thinking when it comes to what you’re going to do. Do you think you are weak because you are somebody from a small country and you can’t do things like somebody from a big country? BS.
“If you want it,” he added, “you can do it.”
Paltchik is currently ranked No. 3 in the world in the under-100 category. Recounting the 2017 and 2018 experiences in Abu Dhabi, he said:
“I competed both years … I’ll start with . Even though I didn’t get the gold, I competed with no flag on my chest and no name on my back. Eventually, I finished third. My friend, Tal Flicker, he won the gold. When he stood on the podium, he didn’t hear Hatkiva. He didn’t see our flag. He saw the IJF flag. We respect this flag but it is not ours. This was not a good taste in our mouths. You understand?
For 2018, “It was absolutely amazing. It was the best feeling in the world. I can’t pronounce in words how it was feeling. It was electric. Not only winning. It was a big winning of all, of sports — it felt like a winning of sports over politics. All the love and the heart we got from the Israelis — it was very special. I didn’t sleep for two nights just answering the messages. It was really, really crazy. Everybody felt bigger than just this fight on the mat. It was the big win of all.”
Amid the 2018 European championships, Paltchik said, many of his judo friends had their eyes opened: “Yeah, and people are not riding on camels here. People came here and saw it’s a wonderful country and Tel Aviv is a crazy city and it’s beautiful here, with the beach and the sea, and it’s really fun here. People want to come here again.”
Which is now the case — for a tour stop, an extraordinarily normal moment. Every international sports federation in the Olympic scene runs, or aims to run, a world tour. This one, the 2019 IJF tour, gets going Jan. 24-26 in Tel Aviv.
“This is the way I feel now,” Paltchik said, meaning normal. “I am feeling we became part of this big thing called IJF and we have taken this IJF event and we became — normal.
“It’s really great. It’s fantastic.”