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The Ukrainian victory in Saudi Arabia

Filip Hrgovic of Croatia and Zhang Zhilei of China hold a press conference ahead of their boxing match within the 'Rage on the Red Sea' boxing competitions in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on August 17, 2022. [Ayman Yaqoob - Anadolu Agency]

Last Saturday, Ukraine's Oleksandr Usyk won the world heavyweight boxing championship in a fight against Britain's Anthony Joshua at King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah. The audience included Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. On Saudi soil, Usyk dedicated his victory to his country, which has been invaded by Russia since last February, as well as to his family and "to all the military defending this country." The champion wore the colours of the Ukrainian flag with "Colours of Freedom" written on his clothing.

This might not have attracted much attention if it wasn't for the memories it brings up, which usually happens when we recall events for the sake of comparison and an attempt to learn lessons from them. Perhaps we still believe, even as we see the world repeating itself in its barbarism, in the words of Saudi writer Abdul Rahman Munif: "Whoever reads the past in a wrong way will see the present and the future in a wrong way as well, so we must know what happened in order to avoid making mistakes again. It is foolish for a person to pay the price of one mistake twice, lest we live the mistake twice."

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The event hosted by Saudi Arabia involved an internationally-recognised sport. Boxing is also an Olympic sport and, like other competitive games, should be kept free of political interference. Article 50 of the Olympic Charter, and the governing laws of the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA), for example, prohibit any form of political or religious expression on sports fields or other sports venues or arenas. They should be places where audiences can enjoy their hobbies and passion for games and express their feelings by watching collectively without national and international politics getting in the way. In short, sport should be politically neutral, and there are a number of examples where sportsmen and women have been disqualified or otherwise punished for expressing political positions. That's why the Usyk-Joshua fight, and the winner's comments, caught my attention. Astonishingly, his political comments were welcomed locally and internationally.

Meanwhile, Russian athletes are banned from participating in any international sports competition just because they are Russian citizens.

Usyk is a volunteer fighter in the Ukrainian Special Forces. Pictures of him holding a gun have been posted online. His manager boasted to CNN that Usyk's job is to look for strangers and set up checkpoints, and make sure that strangers or people who pose a danger do not pass. To world champion boxer, therefore, we can add resistance fighter to Usyk's titles, and defender of his country against the Russian occupation.
Which brings us to an important question: how is an irregular soldier whose mission on the battlefield is obscure, allowed to participate in a global sporting event? Is it because he is Ukrainian and there is great support for Ukraine in the media, as well as military and economic backing from NATO countries? And because Saudi Arabia needs to improve its global image?

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Yet again we have witnessed international hypocrisy. Simply being Ukrainian makes resistance legitimate in the eyes of the West, whereas Arab and Muslim resistance against foreign invaders is branded as terrorism. We saw that after the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and continue to see it daily in terms of legitimate Palestinian resistance to Israel's brutal military occupation. "Terrorism" is a label which is echoed around the world by those who swallow Western propaganda without question.

In Iraq, the US occupation authorities used highly insulting labels to degrade the worth and humanity of Iraqis who resisted the invasion. These labels justified the killing of such resistance fighters on one hand, while helping American propaganda to win the media and PR war on the other.

Resistance fighters went from being "confrontational" and "fascist" to "Islamist", "Sunni" and "Al-Qaeda". While foreign volunteers are encouraged to go to Ukraine to fight against the Russians, Arab volunteers who headed to Iraq to defend the country against invaders were (and still are) called "terrorist", "mercenaries", "Saddam apologists" and, at best, "rebels".

All of this was packaged in such a way as to spread within the global consciousness through official statements by four-star generals and the personal testimonies of American soldiers.

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It is ironic that the boxing match in Saudi Arabia reminds me of the use of the title "hajj" among the US-led occupation forces, including Ukrainians, which were famous for their ferocity against the Iraqis. The title "hajj" was not used for those heading to Makkah to perform the pilgrimage, but to insult the "enemy", which was basically any Iraqi or person of Arab origin, or even anyone with brown skin. The "Hajj/Pilgrim Shield" was an improvisation by soldiers who hired Iraqis to upgrade vehicles by fixing any available metal sheets on the sides of Humvees. "Haji Mart" or "Haji Store" was a small shop run by Iraqis that sold things to US troops. The "Hajji patrol" was Iraqi troops accompanying US forces. From the American military perspective, the Iraqi resistance was "Ali Baba", a thief and criminal, while the term "angel" was used for a dead US soldier.

In an article published by the Guardian under the headline "War in Ukraine has ended sport's 'neutrality' myth", Tim Harper, the Executive Director of Equitysport, accused the heads of international sports federations of having "turned their heads away from the plight of fellow human beings as their rights have been withheld or curtailed, and allowed commercial interest to trump common interest. But this time sport has been forced to pick a side, and really mean it."

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This is a completely valid and, I believe, correct position. The question remains: will it be applied to all athletes in all countries, or will double standards in language and practice remain the currency in circulation, as is the current position with regard to Ukraine?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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