Rio 2016: Israel's last Olympics?

Rio 2016: Israel's last Olympics?
Comment: Policies of white supremacy and racial segregation have previously led countries to be banned from the Olympics. Is it time for a sporting boycott of Israel? asks Hilary Aked
4 min read
22 Aug, 2016
Egypt's Islam El-Shehaby refuses to shake hands with Israel's Or Sasson in Rio [Getty]

The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics were, from the outset, difficult for Israel's 47-person delegation.

Before the games even began, Facebook omitted Israel from the original list of teams competing at the games in its in-built Olympics feature.

Then Lebanese athletes refused to share a bus to the opening ceremony at the Maracana Stadium with the Israeli team, prompting organisers to swiftly arrange alternative transportation for the latter group.

Soon after this, Joud Fahmy from Saudi Arabia reportedly forfeited her first round judo match rather than risk competing against Israel's Gili Cohen in the second round. The Saudi team's official twitter account, however, attributed her withdrawal to injury rather than politics.

But in an unmistakable snub, Egypt's Islam El-Shehaby publicly refused to shake hands with Israel's Or Sasson after their judo match in Rio on 12 August, making headlines around the world.

The Egyptian was reprimanded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and sent home by his own team. Meanwhile both Sasson and another Israeli judoka, Yarden Gerbi, went on to win bronze medals.

But these incidents speak of the deep public hostility towards Israel, which stems directly from its policies towards the Palestinians. Given the country's flouting of international law and institutionalised system of ethnic privilege, there is a case for the IOC to reconsider whether the country should be allowed to compete on the international stage.

There is a case for the IOC to reconsider whether the country should be allowed to compete on the international stage

There are some important historical parallels. Monday 22 August will mark the 44th anniversary of the expulsion of the state then known as Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe) from the Olympics. Its exclusion was justified on the basis of its policies of racial discrimination which had come to be recognised - universally - as unacceptable.

Similarly, apartheid South Africa was excluded from the Olympics between 1964 and 1988 due to its white supremacist system.

The growing campaign to isolate Israel until it complies with international law, draws attention to the country's matrix of control which includes colonisation, ethnic cleansing and aspects of apartheid including colour-coded ID cards, separate roads and no-go areas for Palestinians.

But thus far sport has not been as critical an arena as it was during the global campaign against South Africa.

However, the question is increasingly being asked: Is it time for a sporting boycott of Israel?

The Olympics is not the only arena in which sport and politics have collided where Israel is concerned. Last week Glasgow Celtic fans "welcomed" Israeli team Hapoel Be'er Sheva F.C. to the Scottish city with a massive display of Palestinian flags, despite threats of fines and even arrest.

The campaign for FIFA to "show Israel the red card" calls for the country to be expelled from the world football body due to its racist policies.

The campaign for FIFA to 'show Israel the red card' calls for the country to be expelled from the world football body due to its racist policies

A similar campaign to exclude Israel from the Olympics would face significant challenges. Such calls have only seriously been made, in recent history, by Iran which proposed the move in 2002 after Israel's brutal military suppression of the Second Intifada had begun. It was dismissed by the IOC's president Jacques Rogge.

Further sensitivity over Israel's participation arises from the memory of the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes (and a German police officer) at the 1972 Munich Olympics by the Black September Organisation. Those killings were officially commemorated by the IOC for the first time this year, in a ceremony held two days before the opening of Rio 2016.

But a lot can change in four years. Every time Israel launches one of its periodic murderous assaults on Gaza, the boycott advances. Israel's own state violence could thus become the trigger for the build-up of huge pressure from below on the IOC. If it continues to deny Palestinians' rights, it could well become the next Rhodesia or South Africa and be told it is not welcome at Tokyo 2020.

Hilary Aked is an analyst and researcher whose PhD studies focus on the influence of the Israel lobby in the United Kingdom. Follow her on Twitter: @Hilary_Aked

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.