Petulant snubs to Israel in sporting competitions make Arabs and Muslims look insecure and unsportsmanlike - and do nothing to advance the Palestinian cause.

We’ve heard it all before. Many Muslim countries and public figures will argue that Israel, the “Zionist entity”, cannot be normalised. It cannot be acknowledged. It cannot be dealt with. No measure of interaction with Israel can or should be tolerated. They should not even be competed against in sport because Israel does not exist.

That’s all well and good, except for the fact that Israel does exist. Sadly, the proclivity of many Muslim-majority countries to ignore this fact has led to some Muslim athletes losing genuine opportunities at becoming world champions in their own right and has even led to the perception that these countries lack sportsmanship, are sore losers, and cannot follow the rules of international competition.

Iran throwing in the towel against Israel

Despite all the tough talk and political and military posturing against Israel for 40 years now, the Iranian regime has once again failed to throw down the gauntlet against its professed enemy and instead decided to throw in the towel by forcing one of its star athletes to fail intentionally.

In 2018, Iran’s Saeid Mollaei entered the World Judo Championships and defeated both Turkey’s Vedat Albayrak and Japan’s Sotaro Fujiwara in the finals to claim gold and become the champion of the men’s 81 kg division. For Iran, this was an amazing achievement and showed that the country could produce athletes that could compete at the highest level of an extremely popular Olympic sport, and win.

Barely a year later, and Mollaei came to win again at this year’s championships in Tokyo and cement his place as one of the world’s most dominant judoka in his weight category. Defeating four opponents in succession, Mollaei progressed to the semi-finals but received a phone call before he was due to fight.

According to the International Judo Federation (IJF), the world’s governing body of the sport, Iran’s first deputy minister of sport and its national Olympic chief called Mollaei and ordered him not to compete in the semi-final against Belgium’s Matthias Casse so as to avoid a potential match up against Israel’s Sagi Muki.

The IJF has said that state security personnel were at Mollaei’s family home in Iran at the time they made the call, a sinister move designed to threaten the athlete and force his compliance.

Mollaei only partially defied the order but fought half-heartedly as he claimed he was in fear for himself and his family and worried about his future. However, even this partial defiance may have cost him his home, as the Iranian athlete says there is now “no guarantee I will ever be able to return.”

Hypocrisy married with stupidity

It is both exceedingly odd and worrying that the Iranian authorities would bully their athlete in this way, and not for the first time either. It also betrays a kind of double standards that allows the political and religious elites of the country to engage with Israel while denying men and women with sporting dreams the chance to shine simply to make a redundant political statement.

After all, if engagement with Israel is so criminal and reprehensible, why is it acceptable for post-revolution Iran to directly facilitate intelligence gathering and sharing on behalf of Israel to bomb Iraq’s nuclear facilities during Operation Opera in 1981?

Why was it okay for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to call for “Death to Israel!” while receiving arms and ammunition from Tel Aviv for years during the Iran-Contra scandal that rocked the Reagan administration?

And, of course, Iran is not the only country guilty of this kind of hypocritical behaviour that sometimes manifests itself in the athletes representing their countries on the international stage.

At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby faced off against Israel’s Or Sasson. It did not take too long for the Israeli athlete to expertly throw Shehaby onto his back, winning the contest outright and fair and square.

What followed was an absolute outrage in sporting terms and a total embarrassment for Egyptians in specific and Arab sports fans in general. Having lost the match, Shehaby failed to shake hands with the opponent he willingly faced and refused to return a bow of respect offered to him by Sasson.

Rather than coming across as a proud Arab who fought valiantly against a representative of the “Zionist foe”, Shehaby came across as a sore loser who could not bring himself to respect the etiquette of the Japanese sport and who had no regard for the sportsmanship expected at the Olympics.

The only message he sent to the world was that Arabs and Muslims could not take defeat graciously.

Israel’s existence is a fact, whatever one may think of its vile politics of occupation and constant assault on the rights of Palestinians. Pretending Israel does not exist is juvenile, ridiculous, and, particularly when it comes to non-engagement in sport, petulant. 

When Jerusalem and much of the Holy Land was conquered by the Crusaders centuries ago, even men like Salahuddin al Ayoubi – known as Saladin in the West – made agreements and truces with the invaders even as he fought them, recognising their existence and dealing with reality.

For the Muslim world to bury its head in the sand now that Israel is a legal entity that is dealt with, and recognised by most nations around the world, betrays a sense of insecurity that does nothing for the Palestinian cause.

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