Sports Talk: To be left outBy Alaa Abdel-Ghani
First Published: January 9, 2009
In 1960, South Africa was suspended by the International Olympic Committee and FIFA from participating in any regional or international sporting event because of its apartheid policy. The ban lasted 32 years until it was lifted in 1992 after Pretoria abandoned its racist policies.
In the midst of Israel's war crime in Gaza, perhaps a similar ban should be slapped on Israel.
A sports boycott of Israel would not be unprecedented. Following the 1973 war, Israel was kicked out of all Asian sports federations. In the years following, Israel had to travel all the way to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji to find willing competitors. In 1993, Israel was eventually accepted into European sports bodies, enabling it to compete in many of the world’s most prestigious competitions, including the UEFA football cups.
Because Israel plays mainly in Europe, Israeli and Arab and Muslim athletes don't meet many times. But on occasion their paths cross and when they do, the encounter is bumpy. In the Athens Olympics, one of Iran's top gold medal prospects, Arash Miresmaeili, abruptly withdrew from competition after being paired against an Israeli judoka in the 66-kilogram class. Miresmaeili was a two-time world champion and would have been heavily favored to beat Israel's Ehud Vaks.
Miresmaeili was not the first Iranian judoka to forgo competing against an Israeli. At the 2001 World Championships, Mahed Malekmohammdi declined to compete against Israel's Yoel Razvozov, and Asian champion Masoud Haji Akhoundzade pulled out of a match against Israeli lightweight Zvi Shafran.
The first time Egypt and Israel were involved in a political sports boycott was in 1956. Several countries, including Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, boycotted the Olympic Games in Melbourne that year after the Tripartite Aggression.
Even after Israel signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, sports competitions have been limited. One exception was a handball game in the early 1990s when the Israeli national team came to play in Egypt. The Egyptians took their political aggression out on the court, playing an especially hyper game which left several of the Israeli players knocked out; one came back with a broken nose. There also was a friendly soccer match between Jordan and Israel in the mid-1990s back when hopes were high for Middle East peace.
Our last involvement with Israel in sports was in October 2007 when Israel fielded six drivers and five bicyclists in the Pharaons International Cross Country Rally in Egypt. None of them produced admirable results.
Even in the relatively safe confines of Europe, Israeli athletes are not always welcome, especially these days. A Eurocup basketball game last week between a Turkish team and a visiting Israeli squad had to be called off after the Israeli players refused to continue with the match. They had become rattled in the face of rabid Turkish spectators, incensed by the Gaza massacre, who hurled coins and lighters at them, chanting "Israel, killers." Rubbing salt into the wound of the Israeli Bnei Hasharon team, who are stuck at the bottom of their Group D, the group's leaders Turk Telecom were awarded a technical victory. Hasharaon was deemed to have forfeited the game.
Sometimes a ban on one country boomerangs on another. Indonesia was banned from playing at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo for not inviting Israel to the Asia Games the year before. But in general, sports boycotts can have a great impact on the intended target. Major sports events confer international recognition and status on participating countries. International sporting events can play an important role in shaping a country's image in the rest of the world. And countries increasingly utilize sport to legitimize and promote themselves around the world. Take away sports, and you strip countries of their identity, credibility and legitimacy.
In the case of apartheid South Africa, the sports boycott effectively sent a message to the regime and its backers that the international community did not accept the institutionalized racism it practiced and played an important role in isolating the regime and its supporters.
There have been sports sanctions imposed on countries other than South Africa. Dozens of nations boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games following the invasion of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union. In 1992 the UEFA banned Yugoslavia from the European Championship because of the war in Bosnia. In all cases, the boycott's aim was the same: To stop the aggressor from promoting itself as a fair player via the participation of its sporting teams and individuals, and to raise public awareness about the crimes being committed by the offending party.
A sporting boycott of Israel would send a powerful message that its wanton murders in Gaza are abhorrent and its occupation as a whole is unacceptable.
A common reaction to proposals for a sporting boycott is that politics and sports should not mix. As such, sports boycotts should be used only in exceptional circumstances. This could be one of them.