Arash Miresmaeili, who had won the gold medal in two World Judo Championships (2001 and 2003), was a strong contender for gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics. The 23-year-old judoka, just like any other young athlete carried the dreams of caressing an Olympic medal. Yet, despite all the glory that lay within his grasp, Miresmaeili decided to give up on his dream. The reason was absurd -- his opponent was an Israeli.
Miresmaeili was officially disqualified by the Olympic Committee for being slightly overweight in his weight category. Although this is a normal procedure, the sudden disqualification raised several eyebrows as to how such an experienced athlete and world champion had succumbed to such a basic error. Arash Miresmaeili represented the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iranian athletes have had a history of refusing to play with their Israeli counterparts. This was not the first time someone had refused to compete with an Israeli athlete nor would it be the last.
The stance of seeing an Israeli athlete as hostile, some justify, comes from sympathy towards the Palestinian cause. This is eyewash.
The most recent incident took place in the 2016 Rio Olympics during the men's heavyweight judo bout between Or Sasson of Israel and Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby. After the match, which Sasson won, Shehaby spurned a handshake extended by Sasson. Another similar incident occurred in Rio when a Saudi judoka quit because there was a chance that she could have faced Gili Cohen, an Israeli. The opening day ceremony sparked controversy when the Lebanese delegation refused to travel in the same bus as Israeli athletes. While this drew criticism from different corners, the Lebanese Republic praised the actions of its athletes.
The stance of seeing an Israeli athlete as hostile, some justify, comes from sympathy towards the Palestinian cause. This is eyewash. If Palestine is the cause, then the Lebanese delegation's actions towards the members of the Israeli team are ridiculous. Lebanon did not go soft while criticizing Israel's policies and talked about the issue of Palestinian rights, yet no such thing exists in Lebanon for the more than 300,000 Palestinian refugees that are systematically discriminated against. They are denied citizenship, barred from working in more than 20 professions, prevented from registering or purchasing property and they have been deliberately put in squalid living conditions for almost four decades. Many, including Palestinians, have had no hesitations in terming Lebanon's Palestine policy as "apartheid".
One major sporting area in which Israeli athletes are discriminated against is football. Israel played in the 1970 FIFA World Cup and was Asian champion in 1964. Yet Israel was expelled from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 1974 by the Arab countries, mostly as a response to Israel's victory in the 1973 war. There have been numerous cases where Israeli footballers have faced discrimination. The case of Dan Mori is a prominent one. Mori, who used to play for the Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem, could not participate in a friendly match which was held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as UAE officials refused to give him a visa because of his nationality. Yossi Benayoun, one Israel's best footballers had to face racist chants and abuse in Malaysia.
There is no doubt that this discrimination against Israeli sportspersons is laced with varying degrees of racism.
Israel is perhaps the only country in the global sporting industry which faces such dangerous levels of discrimination. If the Palestinian cause and the violation of human rights is the reason this is happening then why do countries like China, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Russia and Venezuela -- which are known human rights violators -- face no such discrimination? This is not to say that all these countries should be discriminated against, but to point out that "human rights" is just a cover in the case of Israel. The agenda, whatever it may be, is wider and beyond the scope of human rights alone. There is no doubt that this discrimination against Israeli sportspersons is laced with varying degrees of racism.
One of the more shocking trends in recent times has been an increase in anti-Semitism, which has resulted in large numbers of Jewish people, especially from Europe, migrating to Israel. This does not portend well for Jewish futures especially in a Europe that had to overcome one of the most harrowing episodes of intolerance in the 1930s and 40s. The only way incidents like this can be prevented is if more people start coming into the open to condemn such actions. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) reprimanded El-Shehaby for his behaviour, which was contrary to the Games' "rules of fair play and spirit of friendship". Whatever small steps can be taken against similar incidents come as a welcome change. Let the IOC's decision come as a reminder that whenever such intolerance was given a free hand it inevitably turned out to be a recipe for disaster.