The world of sport has been let down – again – by a Muslim who prefers to pull out of an event rather than face an Israeli competitor. This time, it was not a head-to-head encounter that was being avoided, but the prospect of having to run a race in which one of a dozen competitors would have been an Israeli. Apparently that was one too many for the Muslim runner. In the past, there have been so many indignities visited upon Israeli athletes by Muslims. The greatest indignity, of course, was death – the murders of 11 Israeli athletes by Black September terrorists at the Munich Olympics in 1972. But there have been so many others, large and small, constantly reminding Israelis of the hate Muslims have for them. The small: an Egyptian Judoka refused to shake the hand of an Israeli Judoka in the 2016 Olympics; Tunisia’s tennis federation forbade its tennis star from facing an Israeli in a match. Tal Flicker, an Israeli who won the Judo gold medal at the Grand Slam Judo Tournament held in the UAE in 2017, sang the Israeli national anthem to himself since the United Arab Emirates wouldn’t play it.
And the large: For years, Iranian athletes, including champion wrestlers, have been made to deliberately lose their own bouts so that they would not then have to face an Israeli. In 2017, an Iranian wrestler competing at the U23 World Senior Wrestling Championship in Poland was forced to forfeit the fight so he wouldn’t have to face an Israeli wrestler in the following round. More on these deliberately thrown matches can be found in the 2017 article here.
The wrestler, Alireza Karimi-Machiani, was on his way toward trouncing his opponent, Russian wrestler Alikhan Zhabrailov, when Karimi-Machiani’s coach ordered him to lose (“lose Alireza” he shouted from the sidelines). Karimi-Machiani initially resisted the order, but eventually acquiesced. He was not happy about it.
“I tried hard for months to get the world gold medal,” the wrestler told the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA). “Achieving a world medal is the only happiness for any of us.”
Karimi-Machiani added, “I do accept that Israel is an oppressor and commits crimes. But would it not be oppression if our authorities undermine my hard work again?”
At the 2021 Olympics, two Muslim judokas avoided their matches with an Israeli competitor, Tohar Butbul, in different ways. First, the Algerian Fethi Nourine withdrew from a match since, had he won, he would then have had to face Butbul. Then a second judoka, the Sudanese Mohamed Abdalrasool, weighed in, but did not show up for his scheduled match with Butbul.
Some of the athletes instructed to throw matches in order to avoid competing with Israelis have complied, and remained silent. Others have complied, and then angrily denounced their own countries, quit their teams, and have chosen to compete for other countries or “under the Olympic flag.” Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei, for example, fled to Europe in 2019 after Iranian authorities forced him to throw a semifinal match in Tokyo to avoid the risk of entering the final against the Israeli Sagi Muki in the world championship. Mollaei, having followed orders and thrown the match, then publicly announced that he would no longer compete for Iran. In the future, he said, he would compete “under the Olympic flag.”
Muki would go on to win the world championship later in the day.
Lebanon, no doubt prompted by Hezbollah, has sternly enforced the shunning by Lebanese of all Israeli competitors. A Lebanese boxer, Charbel Abu Daher, withdrew from the World Junior Championships, in Abu Dhabi, rather than face an Israeli opponent. Before that, in 2021 the Lebanese (and Hezbollah-linked) Abdullah Miniato withdrew from the World Mixed Martial Arts Championship in Bulgaria after a draw set him up to confront an Israeli contestant.
This has even extended to international chess competitions, at every level. Mark Abou Deeb, an 8-year-old Lebanese boy, withdrew from the World Cadet Chess Championships in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain in order to avoid playing against an Israeli boy. The Lebanese junior chess champion, Maggie Qassem Fawaz, decided to withdraw from the 4th Abu Dhabi International Open Festival after the classification pitted her against an Israeli player in her fourth round.
Recently, the most populous Muslim country – Indonesia – refused to allow an Israeli soccer team to take part in a scheduled Under-20 World Cup competition. But before the competition was to begin without the Israeli team, FIFA took away Indonesia’s hosting rights for the World Cup, which will now take place in another country later this year. And Indonesia has been warned by FIFA that it is likely to suffer more consequences, such as being banned from hosting FIFA matches for the next ten years. Perhaps that reaction will concentrate the minds of Indonesian leaders on whether they want to pay such a high price to continue a boycott of Israeli athletes – a boycott that, in the last year, several Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have chosen to ignore.
Triathlete Shachar Sagiv in 2022 became the first Israeli athlete to compete in Saudi Arabia, in the latest sign of growing informal ties between the former enemies.
Sagiv competed in Neom on the same day that an Israeli tennis player faced off against a Saudi opponent in Bahrain, as the two countries without any diplomatic ties appear comfortable meeting on the field.
If Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are now willing to have Israeli athletes compete in tournaments on their soil, and Abu Dhabi allows Israeli chess players to take part in its tournaments, how long will other Muslim states, and individual players, continue to avoid all competition with Israelis, by withdrawing from, or deliberately losing, matches? When the most deeply Arab and Muslim of countries – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain – are welcoming Israeli competitors, why should Indonesia give up the possibility, not just this year but potentially for many years to come, of hosting the FIFA World Cup? How long must young Nadia Fawaz be forced to withdraw from international chess competitions, in order to win the praise of Hezbollah, while her chess skills wither on the vine? How many medals, how much recognition, how much personal satisfaction, are these Arabs and Iranians, forced to avoid playing against Israelis, willing to forego?