Israel tests the Olympics’ commitment to nondiscrimination — again

The Olympics haven’t even started, and tiny Israel is already testing the IOC’s commitment to their mission (jns.org).

The Tokyo Olympics have yet to begin. Yet tiny Israel is already testing the International Olympic Committee’s commitment to its mission.

Last week, the United Nations Human Rights Council held its quadrennial panel on “leveraging sport and the Olympic ideal for promoting human rights for young people.” The famously Israel-obsessed council affirmed “the Olympic ideal … [of] fairness, non-discrimination, respect and equal opportunities for all.’” Meanwhile, IOC President Thomas Bach discussed the IOC’s mission, including political neutrality and “being an ally to all in promoting peace and human rights.”

In theory, that mission embraces all 205 nations participating in Tokyo. As always, though, the challenge is in the implementation.

It’s been five long years since the last summer Olympics. But readers may recall that back in Rio, Lebanese athletes refused to share a bus with their Israeli counterparts. A Saudi judoka forfeited a match to avoid facing an Israeli. And an Egyptian judoka repeatedly refused to shake hands with an Israeli after losing to him.

This year, anti-Israel hostility has started early, and it’s extended beyond the competitors. On June 13, artistic swimmers Eden Blecher and Shelly Bobritsky learned they “had just clinched the fourth slot in the Women Duet category of the Artistic Swimming Qualification Tournament” in Barcelona. The two Israelis were thrilled to earn a ticket to Tokyo.

One sports journalist covering the event for Spain’s TV3 was less enthused, though. Catalan public broadcasting’s Clara Basiana told the viewing public, “Beyond the technical aspects, I would like to point out that Israel’s international presence in the field of sport and culture is another strategy for the laundering of genocide and the violation of human rights that they are committing against the Palestinian people.”

Basiana added, “We have seen it here, at the pre-Olympic games in Barcelona; we have seen it repeatedly at Eurovision. It seems that during these events, the war crimes of the Israeli state disappear. We have to be aware as spectators and make this situation visible so as not to normalize it.”

These hostile comments clearly had nothing to do with artistic swimming. Basiana’s political commentary also did not extend to the swimmers from repressive Belarus. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, “ACOM, a pro-Israel organization in Spain, accused TV3 of singling out Israel due to antisemitism.”

Stateside, The Lawfare Project wrote to TV3 requesting an investigation into Basiana’s biased conduct. The Combat Antisemitism Movement also wrote to TV3, urging that Basiana be reprimanded and “that the station take preventative measures to” avoid another such incident. CAM also posted a public petition demanding that TV3 discipline Basiana.

The International Swimming Federation responded to requests for comment about the incident: “FINA condemns all forms of discrimination and reiterates that defamatory comments or behaviour of all nature are not welcome in aquatics. FINA strongly believes that the pool deck must be a place of respect and dignity for athletes of all race, religion and orientations — nothing more, nothing less.” 

A spokesperson for the Israel Swimming Association emailed that the organization “strongly condemns any mixture of sports and politics. There is no place for such statements in the field of play or next to it.”

Both organizations are right. Politics shouldn’t be used as a cudgel against athletes as they compete. The Olympics are an opportunity for the world to marvel at feats of physical accomplishment and for “sport to promote peace and understanding among all people,” as Thomas Bach said last week.

Notably, some people accept that premise with an asterisk, where Israeli athletes are concerned. It is striking that Israeli swimmers, whose most famous public expressions are aquatic dances, should be demonized.

Iranian athletes won’t be quizzed about their government executing wrestler Navid Afkari or killing Iranian civilian protesters. Chinese athletes won’t be grilled about the Uyghur genocide or slave labor. But, like Clara Basiana, some will presumably vilify Israeli athletes for Israeli government policies they dislike or for personifying a nation they detest. What remains to be seen is whether the IOC will respond to such violations of its mission this year.

Israeli sailor Gidi Kliger’s 2012 comment to Sports Illustrated remains as timely as ever: “Know what would be nice? … I wish we could go and just have the normal Olympic experience. Nothing political, nothing special, no protests, no ceremonies. Just athletes competing.”

The world doesn’t appear to be there, but perhaps FINA’s statement is a good omen. Maybe one Olympic year, Kliger’s dream will actually come true.

This article appeared in the Washington Examiner.

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