Without Exception, Politics has no Place at the Olympics and Paralympics

Israel's Or Sasson (white) competes with Egypt's Islam Elshehaby during their men's +100kg judo contest match of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 12, 2016. / AFP / Toshifumi KITAMURA (Photo credit should read TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images)

Rio 2016 was a great success. The great thing about the Olympics and Paralympics is that, no matter how many scare stories the press can dredge up beforehand surface, the sport and spectacle will always come out on top. Fears of the Zika virus caused athletes to withdraw; Brazil’s political climate served as a dark backdrop to the beginning of the Games; there were worries that the Paralympics might not even happen. But once it all began, any troubles were cast aside.

The other great charm of the Games is that, for two glorious fortnights, viewers can forget about the serious goings on of the world. Politics, war and all the other issues over which we spend so much time arguing take a seat in the back of our minds, affording us an (albeit slightly selfish) opportunity to rest. It’s a summer holiday within the summer holiday—a time of celebration and, although it’s become a terrible cliché, inspiration. Unfortunately, there will always be those who can’t switch off when on a break.

The first incident

Only the worst of controversies can halt the Olympic juggernaut when in full flow—often controversies are simply part of the fun—but every now and then someone has to spoil the fun for everyone. Such is the partisan nature of mankind, it will always be difficult to divorce politics from sport. But the Olympics’ latest instance of current affairs rearing its ugly head came in the form of a debate which never seems to play by others’ rules.

Egypt’s Islam El Shehaby was defeated by Israel’s Or Sasson in the Round of 32 of the men’s over 100kg Judo. As is customary, the Israeli athlete bowed to his opponent, who was at first reluctant to return the favour and backed away. The referee called the Egyptian back to bow, which he did somewhat halfheartedly before quickly backing away when Sasson offered to shake his hand.

Most of the outrage that followed was directed at El Shehaby’s refusal to shake his opponent’s hand. Shaking hands is not, as both the Disciplinary Commission and the athlete himself pointed out, compulsory under the rules of the International Judo Federation. It was certainly very discourteous of him not to do so, since his opponent offered to shake his hand, and not in the spirit of the Olympics, but his decision was excusable, if disappointing.

What was truly unspeakable was his initial refusal to bow. In Judo, it goes without saying that you bow to your opponent after every match. By not carrying out this tradition, El Shehaby broke one of sport’s most clear codes of conduct and brought the sport into disrepute.

He said of his decision not to shake Sasson’s hand:

 “Shaking the hand of your opponent is not an obligation written in the judo rules. It happens between friends and he’s not my friend. I have no problem with Jewish people or any other religion or different beliefs. But for personal reasons, you can’t ask me to shake the hand of anyone from this state, especially in front of the whole world.”

By admitting that he could not shake the hand of an Israeli, El Shehaby had brought one of the world’s most toxic debates onto the world stage. The Israel issue is contemptuous at the best of times, but opening this particular can of worms at an event which strives to be apolitical is irresponsible and mindless.

Not a one-off

Earlier on in the Olympics, the Lebanese team refused to travel to the opening ceremony in the same bus as the Israelis. The two countries are at war with each other and tensions are high between them. Israel’s sailing coach, Udi Gal, said that the two teams were allocated the same bus and that, despite his team’s insistence to get on, the Lebanese delegation physically blocked them from entering. The head of the Lebanese delegation, Saleem a-Haj Nacoula, told Lebanese media that the Israeli team were “looking for trouble”.

Even if Nacoula’s story is true, wouldn’t he have been better off letting them on? One presumes that by “looking for trouble” he means that the Israeli delegation actively wanted the Lebanese to refuse them entry, so that they would be able to gain some sort of moral high ground. If they did want the moral high ground, why give it to them? Olympic spirit aside, even on the most cynical level it would have made sense for them to let the Israelis on.

The two teams could have made a positive statement to the world by sharing that bus ride together. As sportsmen, both teams have more in common with each other than they do with many other people in their own respective countries. They could have sent out the message that they were willing to set aside their differences for this festival of sport; instead, the Lebanese team chose to create further divisions which gave their enemy the upper hand.

The goalball incident

There are many great things about the Paralympics, not least some of the quirky sports on display, possibly the most unique of which is “goalball”. Goalball is an exciting if simple sport where two teams, wearing blindfolds, look to hurl a ball with a bell in it in the opposition’s net. At Paralympics past, goalball has always been one of the sports which steals the show. Unfortunately, one of the few times that the sport grabbed the headlines in Rio was for all the wrong reasons.

Algeria’s team were absent for their first two games against the USA and Israel, finally arriving in Brazil six days after they were meant to. The team claimed to have suffered multiple flight delays and cancellations, denying any accusations that they wanted to avoid playing against Israel.

Paralympic officials were very openly critical of their excuse, with IPC chief Craig Spence saying:

“It needs to be stressed that the National Paralympic Committee of Algeria did not decide to inform the IPC, Rio 2016 or IBSA… that the team had not arrived until one hour before the game, which I don’t think is the best form of action. We’ve asked them for a full explanation. That’s the explanation they gave us, claiming the flights have been cancelled and they’ve had a number of transportation issues. We’ve seen no evidence of flights into Rio from Europe being cancelled in the last few days, so we’ll continue investigating this matter. The rest of their team arrived, and it would appear that 4335 other athletes also arrived here quite easily, so we’re looking into why suddenly these five athletes and two coaches haven’t made it.”

One can only hope that the Algerians are telling the truth. Otherwise, their willing to waste four years of training as well as their place at the Paralympics—which could easily have been taken by someone else—in order to make a political statement, only to deny all guilt when criticised is most disappointing. Why they even felt the need to make such a statement is bemusing.

Boycotting a goalball match is not going to solve any political problems. Those Israeli players, who have plenty of common ground with their Algerian counterparts, do not have much influence on the powers that be in their country. Furthermore, forfeiting a match against them and thereby gifting them a win by default is not going to get the players, fans and government of Israel on their side. Just like with the Judo incident, even on the most cynical level their gesture makes little sense. Ignoring the most important issue—the spirit of the Games—both the Algerians and El Shehaby have still made fools of themselves.

Positive statements

It cannot be denied that some of the political statements which have been made at Games gone by have had a positive effect. A few days into Rio 2016, gymnasts Lee Eun-ju of South Korea and Hong Un-jong of North Korea shared a picture together. With this simple gesture, the two made their point more powerfully than any boycott ever could.

The Olympics and Paralympics are not the place for politics. They are sporting events where the sport is the most important thing. Athletes who are incapable of putting their political views aside should avoid competing, and if they feel the need to miss out on the pinnacle of their sports because of their political views, perhaps they should not be in the profession at all. If competitors from North and South Korea can put their allegiances aside for two weeks, then the anti-Israel crowd should be able to, too.

Bad things will always happen at the Games. This is unavoidable. Only a few days ago, Iranian cyclist Bahman Golbarnezhad died in a crash in a Paralympic road race. Tragic accidents like these are very difficult to avoid. What can be avoided is people causing bad feeling for the sake of a petty political statement.

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