The case for a sports boycott of Israel over its war on Gaza

The case for a sports boycott of Israel over its war on Gaza
7 min read

Samar Saeed

20 March, 2024
From protesting racism and the Vietnam war to boycotting apartheid South Africa and Russia, sports have always been a platform for change, writes Samar Saeed.
The international sports community cannot stay silent as Israel kills athletes and targets facilities in Gaza, writes Samar Saeed. [Getty]

During the 2024 NFL Super Bowl last month, Israel aired a 30-second ad at halftime justifying its genocide in Gaza.

At that very same moment, Israeli Occupation forces (IOF) were committing a massacre in Rafah, killing tens of Palestinians.

With 123 million viewers, this year’s Super Bowl became the most watched in the game’s history. The public’s response to Israel’s ad was subdued, forcing us to reflect on the perceived separation between sports and politics for which American politicians often advocate.

This supposed separation is often selectively emphasised to align with the interests of the US and its allies. Despite calls to ‘keep politics out of sports’, in reality, sports have consistently served as a tool to enforce the US political agenda.

When events involve perceived US enemies like Russia, the politicisation of sports, including calling for boycotts of Russian athletes, is readily endorsed. Similarly, when US allies such as Israel are involved, the politicisation of sports is demanded, even when Israel is committing a genocide funded by US-tax payers.

In six months, the US-backed Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip has killed more than 31,000 Palestinians, wounded 73,300, and displaced over 2 million. The sports community’s silence on these atrocities speaks volumes to its hypocrisy and double standards.

Sports have consistently served as a platform for protesting injustices. Perhaps the most powerful image seared into the memory of sports history is the protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, track and field athletes who represented the US in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Standing atop the medal platform, they kneeled and raised their fists in protest against white supremacy and racism. Both athletes were booed and expelled from the games.

A year earlier, the beloved boxing world champion, Muhammad Ali, refused to be conscripted into the US army amidst its aggression in Vietnam. He was sentenced to five years in a federal penitentiary and a $10,000 fine. Ali was also banned from fighting for three years until the Supreme Court overruled his conviction in 1971.

The US has also used sports to punish its enemies. In 1980, it led 65 countries to boycott the Moscow Summer Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. In return, the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact members organised a boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Attention to these historical incidents shows how the supposed separation between sports and politics often collapses. According to Jordanian National Basketball player Zara Najjar, “in an ideal world, sports and politics would remain separate, allowing athletes to compete for the love of the game. However, history has shown us that sports often serve as a powerful platform for political expression and change.”

“From Jesse Owens’ defiance at the 1936 Olympics, Mandela’s unifying use of rugby in 1995, to the sports boycott of apartheid South Africa, and the push for gender equity through sports, these moments highlight the influences sports have beyond the field.”

Perhaps this double standard becomes most visible when we juxtapose responses to Russia’s attack on Ukraine to Israel’s attack on Palestinians. In the former, sports and politics became intertwined, and Russia’s aggression was deemed punishable. Professional sporting organisations vocally supported Ukraine.

However, displays of Palestinian solidarity in the sporting world have and continue to be banned and villainized, amidst a broader narrative that portrays Israel as a ‘victim’ that is only ‘defending itself’ from ‘terrorists’.

Prior to 7 October, Israel had killed more than 250 Palestinians in 2023, making it the most lethal year since the UN began documenting fatalities in 2004-2005. But sports institutions said nothing.

Between 7 October and 6 December, Israeli attacks killed approximately 85 Palestinian athletes in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. According to the Palestinian Football Association, the casualties included 55 football players and 30 players in other sports. The report added that Israel targeted Palestinian athletes, especially football players, club presidents, administrators and referees.

Israeli rockets also destroyed nine sports facilities, four in the West Bank and five in the Gaza Strip. On 25 December, a disturbing video circulated showing dozens of men, women, and children rounded up in the Yarmouk Stadium in Gaza City.

The stadium, one of Palestine’s oldest sporting facilities which was once used for tournaments and festivals, had turned into a collective detention camp. It was not the first time the stadium witnessed Israel’s violence; in 2012, it was bombed by Israeli strikes.

Targeting Palestinian athletes has been part of Israel’s violence towards Palestinian for decades. In 2014, the IOF shot two Palestinian football players and cousins, nineteen-year-old Jawhar, shot with ten bullets, and seventeen-year-old Adam, shot with two bullets.

Both football players were shot in their feet and legs, reflecting a broader “shoot to cripple” policy that has become widespread, especially in areas of resistance across the West Bank.

While the sports community remained silent on the atrocities faced by the Palestinians, it swiftly extended its support to Israel. On 8 October, the NBA released a statement saying, “The NBA and NBPA (National Basketball Players Association) mourn the horrific loss of life in Israel and condemn these acts of terrorism. We stand with the people of Israel and pray for peace for the entire region.”

Major League Baseball (MLB) echoed similar sentiments. By following the expressions of support for Israel by major sports organisations, juxtaposed with their complete silence on the violence Palestinians are subjected to, it becomes evident how selective justice is manifest in the realm of sports and politics.

As Najjar states, “The selective engagement of politics in sports, often reflecting the West’s agenda, underscores the lack of justice in how these matters are addressed.”

However, Palestinians do have their allies in the sporting world, despite the pressure and risks athletes face for supporting Palestine. For example, WNBA star Natasha Cloud has been an important, vocal figure standing in solidarity with Palestinians.

It’s unsurprising that the WNBA player has adopted this stance, given her fearless advocacy during the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the US in 2020. Cloud also plays with the Jordanian National Basketball team, and her teammates, including Zara Najjar, have played an instrumental role in helping Cloud unlearn misperceptions and misunderstanding about Palestinians and their resistance.

In a daring move, given the hostile environment faced by Palestinians and their allies, Cloud attended the NBA All-star game wearing a kufiyyeh, a symbol of the Palestinian revolutionary struggle.

Alongside Cloud, WNBA athletes, including Layshia Clarendon, Kierstan Bell, Amanda Zahui B, and Jasmine Thomas, have joined 200 other athletes in a campaign demanding a ceasefire, a demand that continues to be rejected by US officials.

In the face of Russia’s invasion, the country’s sports teams were banned from international competitions. However, as the genocide continues in Gaza, Israeli sports teams face no consequences.

The BDS movement has launched a campaign titled “No Olympics as Usual,” through which more than 300 Palestinian sports teams have called for a ban on Israel’s participation in the Olympics due to its ongoing war on Gaza.

Najjar put it best: “As seen with the apartheid South Africa, sports boycotts can be a powerful tool for justice. The ongoing genocide in Gaza, committed by Israel, along with its continued oppression and occupation as an apartheid state, necessitate a similar stance today. Sports, inherently political, can and should be a force for change.”

Samar Saeed is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at Georgetown University.

Follow her on Twitter (X): @Samarsaeed

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.