Algerian judoka Fethi Nourine pulled out of this year's Olympic Games rather than step into the arena with an Israeli athlete. His decision made headlines during the games. Now he is back in the news following the International Judo Federation (IJF) decision to ban him and his coach from participating in any activities or competitions organised by the body for ten years. The International Olympic Committee said that Nourine's decision was a "violation of the Olympic Charter regulations".
"It is a harsh punishment but it was expected and this proves that they support the Zionist terrorism against our people in Gaza," Nourine told me. "They are complicit in the crimes of the occupation. I have not committed any violations; my withdrawal was simply an act of solidarity with the Palestinians."
The ban saddens him, but he knows that there is more than a little hypocrisy in the sporting authorities' move. Israel is allowed to compete in international sporting competitions as if it is a normal country, despite the fact that it treats international laws and conventions with contempt. Even Palestinian citizens of Israel face institutionalised racism and discrimination. This apparently means nothing to the International Olympic Committee.
"Their decision has more of a political than a sporting dimension, and yet they told me not to mix politics and sport," Nourine pointed out. He believes that the IJF has given him such a lengthy ban in order to deter and intimidate other athletes who might be considering such boycotts. "Nevertheless, such withdrawals have embarrassed the Zionist entity in front of the world."
Nourine set social media buzzing when he decided not to face Sudanese judoka Mohamed Abdalrasool in the first round, knowing that if he won he would have to face Israeli Tohar Butbul. Does he have any regrets about the move?
"None at all. On the contrary, I am proud of my decision. I would not play with an occupying country that terrorises and kills Palestinian children." The Palestinian cause, he insisted, is more important than sport. His was an irreversible decision.
It is a fact that free people around world take every opportunity to express their solidarity with Palestine. Nourine has found that his Olympic withdrawal sent a powerful message of solidarity with the Palestinians, reminding the world that having athletes in Tokyo or any other major international venue doesn't make the apartheid state a dove of peace. "I wanted to speak out for the innocent and weak people in Palestine. I sacrificed my future in order to revive the Palestinian cause. It was an honour for me to be able to do so."
Fethi Nourine was born in Oran, Algeria, in 1991. He grew up in a simple, conservative family and has been involved in judo since he was seven years old. His first national competition was in 2007, which he won; he was crowned Algerian champion. Since then he has won many tournaments and international titles, including African champion three times and Mediterranean champion. He was injured in 2015, but he returned strongly for the delayed Tokyo Olympics 2020, held this year due to the pandemic. Now 30, Nourine has a history with Israeli rivals. In 2019, he refused to step up against an Israeli athlete at the World Judo Championships, also held in Japan.
He is right to say that such withdrawals embarrass the Zionist entity. The Hebrew newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth said: "The Arabs are making a joke of us by withdrawing in front of our players. There are all kinds of peace agreements… but on the ground the Arab athletes prove that Israel does not exist in their eyes."
While other athletes have found excuses to withdraw rather than face Israelis, Nourine was open about his reason. "I do not want to get my hands dirty."
If Zionist pressure is behind the ban imposed by the IJF on Fethi Nourine, then it confirms that Israeli oppression extends beyond the Palestinian arena. Moreover, Arab athletes' refusal to face Israelis exposes the bankruptcy of normalisation agreements signed by some of their governments with the apartheid state. Such regimes need to get used to the fact that Palestine will be always be the moral compass of the Arab world, and the "Abraham Accords" carry no weight where it really matters, among ordinary people.