Muslim and Arab athletes who don't show up against Israelis put on a brave face but suffer inside, say their Israeli rivals.
"The Iranian athletes came to win just like us, but they know that if they compete they will end up in jail. I see how they are scared to death waiting for the draw. They're trapped by that policy, and they have no choice."
By Uri Talshir
Sunday's refusal by an Iranian swimmer to compete against Israeli Gal Nevo is the latest in a list of similar snubs. In 2001, judoka Yoel Razvozov was supposed to face Iranian Mahed Malekmohammadi in the second round of the World Championships, but Malekmohammadi bowed out because of the sensitive political situation; Iran does not recognize the existence of the Jewish state.
That same year, the two had an additional scheduled encounter, and once again Razvozov was the only athlete to show up to the mat.
"To say it wasn't sportsmanship is a nice slogan," Razvozov said. "The Iranian athletes came to win just like us, but they know that if they compete they will end up in jail. I see how they are scared to death waiting for the draw. They're trapped by that policy, and they have no choice."
In the summer of 2001, Razvozov and Malekmohammadi traveled with their respective teams to a training camp in Holland, where they exchanged glances. "We tried to avoid contact in the training camp, too, but that time we looked at each other," Razvozov recalls. "We were embarrassed, and we thought about whether to go up to one another or not. He made the first step, came up and shook my hand. Although it's not my fault, I felt guilty that he was screwed over twice because of me, and I felt the need to apologize to him."
Razvozov says he told the Iranian he was sorry about the difficult position he was put in because of his Israeli opponent. Malekmohammadi replied that he also was sorry he had to be put in that situation, and added that it did not depend on him.
"I invited him for sparring," Razvozov said. "I saw him looking toward the national team coach for approval. The coach nodded 'okay' and we started. I am sure this conflict is of no interest to the athletes themselves."
Fencer Maor Hatoel faced a similar dilemma three years ago when he drew a Tunisian in a youth tournament. "You can look at it from my side, but there's also the Arab fencers' side," he said. "The Tunisians are very nice people, even friends of ours. We met with them a few times and we laughed together. The draw worked out that he had to end against me."
Hatoel prepared for the fight and watched his tormented colleague wait for a decision by senior officials in the country.
"They waited for an answer from the Federation and the Tunisian government, and then he gestured to me with his hands (as if to say ), 'What can I do? I'm not allowed to fight,'" Hatoel said. "The Tunisian was my friend, and I felt pretty bad for him. Later, his coach apologized and invited me for a Cola. There was nothing left to say."
Hatoel says things have changed since the exchange, and Tunisians and Qataris now compete against Israelis.
On one hand, you want to beat your opponent out of national pride, he said, but on the other, every athlete is a little scared of losing, so it's a gift when the other doesn't show up.
Razvozov says there is an element of uncertainty when it comes to competing against Arab and Muslim countries. Iranians definitely do not compete, but one never knows with Jordanians, Lebanese and Algerians. He drew a Jordanian, he said, in the first round of the 2007 World Championship in Brazil: "You ask yourself if he will show up or not," he said. "I looked for him in the warm-up and didn't find him, but he showed up for the fight in the end and did not shake my hand. I did an ippon on him within half a minute. At the end he again did not shake my hand, and my coach at the time who understood Arabic told me the coach also cursed me."
The Iranian boycott meant gold for taekwando fighter Gili Haimovitz at the 2007 Youth Olympics. Iranian Mohammad Soleimani had won the first semifinal before Haimovitz, then 17, later took on his Argentine opponent. Haimovitz says he knew it was his last fight when he emerged victorious, but he nonetheless showed up in full gear for the final. The excuse was that Soleimani was injured, but Haimovitz says he felt sorry for his rival.
"I saw that he wanted to fight with all his soul, but he was forbidden from doing so," he recalls.
The Olympic Committee of Israel takes the boycott seriously, according to its director, Ephraim Zinger.
"It violates the basis upon which international sports is founded," he said. The problem, according to Zinger, is that in many cases the other side makes up medical excuses, tying Israelis' hands.
"It's a disgrace that they don't have the courage to say, 'We don't show up because we are boycotting and are prepared to bear the punishment,'" he said. "They deceive, lie, fake, and it's impossible to start a police investigation and try every doctor who writes a note."
Zinger says the best answer to this corrupt behavior is for Israeli athletes to advance to the next stages and stand on the podium while other representatives sit in the audience and listen to the Israeli national anthem.
In the case of Nevo, Zinger says FINA, the governing body of international swimming, should file a complaint. However, he said, he would not be surprised if it was discovered that the Iranian developed an allergy to chlorine on the eve of the competition.
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