International sport is stirring up international politics. Again. This time the venue is tennis and the political theater is the volatile Israeli-Arab conflict.
Organizers of the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championship said Tuesday that Israeli player Shahar Peer (ranked 45th in Women’s Tennis Association singles tour) couldn’t play in a scheduled match against Russian player Anna Chakvetadze (ranked 23rd) because of security concerns.
“We do not wish to politicize sports, but we have to be sensitive to recent events in the region and not alienate or put at risk the players and the many tennis fans of different nationalities that we have here in the UAE,” said the tournament organizer’s statement, according to the Associated Press.
Indeed, as the Monitor wrote about here, the deadly offensive that killed 1,300 Palestinians has stirred much Arab anger at Israel. And, as we wrote about here, many enemies of the Jewish state may be aiming to strike high profile Israeli targets.
The Association of Tennis Professionals, the group that oversees the men’s tour, is bracing for another possible scheduling change in the Dubai tournament due to a player’s nationality. Israeli doubles pro Andy Ram (scheduled to play next week) may also be locked out.
Protests from the international tennis community followed the Dubai decision. The International Tennis Federation said that “sport should not be used as a political tool but rather as a unifying element between athletes and nations.” WTA denounced the move, and the Tennis Channel won’t air the tournament in protest.
But the condemnation is unlikely to sway Dubai’s decision even though the emirate has spent mightily over the past decade to turn itself into a destination for everything world class – from museums to hotels to sporting events. On one hand, Dubai wants to champion the Palestinian cause – but it also wants to draw glitterati from around the world (though that drive has slowed significantly, as we have pointed out). But can it become a true international city if it continues to snub Israel?
Plenty of other countries and players have been in similar quandaries when it comes to big-ticket sporting events and politics. The United States boycotted the Olympics in Russia, a few athletes called for snubbing China (but as we pointed out in this article, few listened), and Iranian athletes have regularly refused to compete against Israelis.
While some say politics and sport should not collide, that's a tall order when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian issue – a conflict that may rival soccer when it comes to igniting passions around the world.