TEL AVIV, Israel (Aug. 19)
The refusal by Iran’s world judo champion to compete against Israelis in Athens is part of the Jewish state’s long tangle with political hostility on the playing field. In ancient times, the period of the Olympic Games was a time when enemies laid down their arms and chose sportsmanship over war.
"If you are looking at the Olympic ideals," said Yair Galily, a sports sociologist at the Wingate Institute, Israel’s national sports center, "the Iranian action in some ways is a disgrace to the spirit of the Olympics."
The first time Israel was involved in a political boycott was in 1956. Several countries, including Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, boycotted the Olympic Games in Melbourne that year after Israel invaded Sinai.
More recently, security concerns rather than outright politics have badgered Israeli sports. No international soccer matches have been held in Israel for the past five years. During the European League! basketball championships this year, there was some talk that the finals would not be held in Tel Aviv as scheduled because of concerns over terrorism — although, in the end, Tel Aviv not only hosted the finals but won the championship.
After decades of being regionally homeless on the sports field because Asian and Middle Eastern regional sports bodies refused to include Israel, the Jewish state was accepted in European soccer and basketball leagues — as well as other sports like track and field — in the early 1990s, Galily said.
Indonesia was banned from playing at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo for not inviting Israel to the Asia Games the year before. The last time Israel was invited to the Asia Games, held every four years, was in 1976 when the event was hosted in Teheran — before the Islamic revolution.
Israel already had been kicked out of other Asian sports federations by 1973, following the Yom Kippur War.
In the years following, Israel had to travel ! all the way to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji to find willing competi tors.
The reason there are not more flaps between Israeli athletes and their counterparts from Arab or Muslim countries is that they so rarely compete in the same arenas. It’s only in world gatherings like the Olympics or world championships that their paths cross.
"It’s a matter of luck, coincidence, and the fact that there are not a lot of competitions where Arabs and Israelis meet," said Haggai Harif, who teaches a popular course on sports and politics at Bar Ilan University.
This was not the case before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Harif said.
Until the mid-1940s, Palestinian teams in the British Mandate era were made up mostly of Jews and met teams from local Arab countries in competition in sports such as soccer, water polo and track and field. But once regional tensions rose ahead of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, the competitions ended.
Even since Israel signed peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, sports competition with ! those countries has been limited.
One exception was a handball game in the early 1990s when the Israeli national team went to play in Egypt. The Egyptians apparently took their political aggression out on the field, playing an especially violent game which left several of the Israeli players injured and bruised.
"One came back with a broken nose," Harif said.
There also was a friendly soccer match between Jordan and Israel in the mid-1990s back when hopes were high for Middle East peace.
"But since this most recent intifada there has been nothing to speak of," Harif said.