Egypt’s Islam El-Shehaby’s refusal to shake hands with his Israeli opponent Or Sasson was clearly not in the spirit of the Olympic Games. The athlete, who has been sent home in disgrace by the Egyptian Olympic Committee following strong condemnation of his unsporting behaviour, acted against the “rules of fair play” and “spirit of friendship” prevalent in Rio.
While most people viewed El-Shehaby’s snub as petulance from an individual, others saw fit to use it as an opportunity to unload their prejudice against Arabs and Muslims. It was proof of Arab intransigence, some said; another example of “Arabs never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” One commentator writing for the Wall Street Journal even described the unsporting gesture as the affliction of an entire civilisation. “If you want the short answer for why the Arab world is sliding into the abyss, look no further than this little incident,” said Bret Stephens. In his brazenness, he asserted that the “Meaning of an Olympic Snub” is that it underlines the many reasons as to why the Arab world has been stagnant for centuries.
Echoing Bernard Lewis’s orientalist take on the “Roots of Muslim Rage”, he stated arrogantly that the “Arab world’s problems are a problem of the Arab mind, and the name for that problem is anti-Semitism.” Stephens continued this gross reductionism by suggesting that social and political decline has followed wherever anti-Semitism took hold, offering Spain’s expulsion of the Jews and Nazi Germany as historical examples.
Asserting a hierarchy in the social impact of racism is peculiar to say the least. Most would view racism and bigotry against any group of human beings as an obstruction to social, cultural and political progress; the impact of racism is due to the alienation of a group of people and the construction of social, cultural and political barriers to their collective contribution to society. This is illustrated perfectly, of course, by the way that Israel has obstructed the social, cultural and political growth of millions of Palestinians, thereby impoverishing not just those under occupation but also itself and the region as a whole.
Some, however, appear to be trapped in their racialised classification of human beings and continue to believe in a hierarchy of discrimination by viewing one kind of racism as being far worse than any other. This goes to prove the claim that when something disappears it often returns in disguise; is today’s Israel’s self-claimed “exceptionalism” the “chosen people syndrome” in disguise?
I wonder what Bret Stephens would make of the snub by a prominent British Zionist of a well-known colleague of mine, whose outstretched hand before a TV debate was rejected? Inferring that the incident was somehow reflective of a cultural and civilisational malaise of Israel and, by extension, of all Jews would be ludicrous. The fact that one was in front of a global audience does not change substantively the meaning of the snub, especially as the Olympic Games are nearly as famous for the many political protests that have taken place over the years in and around them as they are for the sporting prowess on display.
Is Mark Spitz’s record seven gold medals of 1972 etched deeper in our memories than the Black Power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 games? I doubt it. One was sporting prowess; the other was political protest. The 1968 gold and bronze medal winners used the presentation ceremony to protest against racial discrimination in America. Undeterred by the chorus of boos and criticism that followed, the athletes created one of the most powerful political images of our time.
The Olympic Games aspire to be different. They are meant to strive to a kind of political utopia, an Olympic truce where differences are set aside and national boundaries, cultural differences and tribal loyalties are transcended. Yet, ironically, the games celebrate nationalism in their very format. How many would confess to watching Rio 2016 with a sense of pride, basking in the success of human achievement rather than the success of their nation as winning athletes parade with national flags draped over their shoulders? A country’s ranking on the medal table may no longer be a contest between superpowers — as it was in the days of the Cold War — but it is nonetheless a source of great pride (or even a source of embarrassment). The games are political theatre; some would say “war by any other means.”
The reality is that despite universal protestation, the Olympic Games and politics have always gone hand in hand. How can it not be so? They are too big a spectacle. Besides, the very group that should be upholding the Olympic truce, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), has reinforced the link between politics and sports through its decisions in the past and failure to live up to the Olympic spirit.
After World War One, the IOC banned Germany, Austria and Turkey — the Great War’s losing axis — from the 1920 Olympics. It also banned Germany following World War Two. During the Cold-War era there was some tit for tat boycotting of the games by countries aligned to the US and the Soviet Union. Most famously, in 1964, the IOC banned South Africa from the Olympics held in Tokyo because of apartheid. This ban continued right up until the 1992 Barcelona games.
Clearly, the IOC has not always upheld the spirit of the games and called an Olympic truce for their sake. External political considerations have invariably been at play, so let’s not pretend that the IOC has not taken a political decision by allowing Israel to participate despite its appalling human rights record. It’s very much a political decision. If the IOC really cared about human rights, as it apparently did with regards to apartheid South Africa, why does it not do so now in the face of systematic rights abuses in a number of countries, including Israel? Does the milch cow that the games have become really mean more to the IOC than international law?
Such inconsistency in the application of morality and the law undermines the Olympics’ credibility. Palestinians have lived under a brutal occupation for decades because international bodies like the IOC have legitimised Israel’s flagrant violations of international law and human rights by letting them go unpunished. Blind support of Israel has enabled a culture of extremes: extreme hypersensitivity towards anti-Israel sentiments and extreme indifference towards Palestinian suffering. How else can one explain the absurd media outrage over the refusal of the Lebanese Olympic team to share a bus with Israelis in Rio, while commentators remain silent about the segregated bus systems operated by Israel in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem?
Segregated buses, roads, neighbourhoods and Jew-only settlements are just a few examples of the racism that underpins Israeli society. Others have noted a striking feature of the Israeli Olympics team itself. Israel is the only self-declared democracy whose team is made up solely of athletes of the same ethnicity, race and religion. Those objecting to the apartheid comparison fail to see that the difference between the two apartheid systems, as others have noted, is in form, not in substance.
Until Israel ends its occupation of Palestine, its participation in the games will remain a bone of contention. It will continue to use the games to boost its legitimacy and critics will point to the hypocrisy of international organisations like the IOC for turning a blind eye to Israel’s policy of racial segregation.
Islam El-Shehaby certainly failed to uphold the Olympic spirit in Rio, but the IOC has failed to uphold the spirit of humanity. Its refusal to extend this spirit to the Palestinians, who have lived under the boots of Israeli occupation for more than six decades, is more than a disgrace; it’s criminal.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.