Olympians are expected to put aside politics in the name of international camaraderie. But the case of an Egyptian judoka who refused to shake hands with his Israeli opponent last week has highlighted the difficulty of achieving the Olympic ideal and leaving nonathletic rivalries aside, even for two weeks at a time.
Islam El Shehaby of Egypt refused to shake hands with Or Sasson of Israel after Mr. Sasson defeated him in a bout in Rio de Janeiro on Friday. The crowd booed Mr. El Shehaby, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) reprimanded him, and his team has sent him home.
On its surface, El Shehaby’s poor sportsmanship is another instance of an Arab athlete’s refusal to compete against an Israeli at the Olympics and other international competitions, or follow normal protocol with Israeli opponents. Yet, El Shehaby’s actions also expose a recurring question of whether athletes from any country can serve as ambassadors without bringing nationalism with them to the mat, field, or pool.
"As soon as you have athletes walk under a national flag, you make them representative of a nation state. As soon as you do that, you bring in all that political strife," John Gleaves, a professor at California State University, Fullerton, and member of the Center for Sociocultural Sport and Olympic Research there, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.
"Even though we might wish sport brings people together, the reality is hard-fought contests can drive people farther apart," he says.
After El Shehaby lost, the judokas took their places on the mat, for the customary bow or handshake to close a match, CBS reports. Sasson bowed and approached El Shehaby to shake his hand. When called back by the referee, El Shehaby nodded and walked away, as the crowd booed.
"Shaking the hand of your opponent is not an obligation written in the judo rules. It happens between friends and he's not my friend," El Shehaby said after his bout, according to Reuters. "I have no problem with Jewish people or any other religion or different beliefs. But for personal reasons, you can't ask me to shake the hand of anyone from this state, especially in front of the whole world."
In El Shehaby’s case, it appears he was threatened by fans and Egyptian nationalists for even competing against Sasson. In the past, numerous athletes have refused to compete against Israelis, sometimes an effort to avoid recognizing Israel as a state.
Other Arab athletes have elected not to compete against Israelis in the first place. In Rio, for example, Joud Fahmy of Saudi Arabia forfeited a first-round judo match in order to avoid facing Israel’s Gili Cohen in the second round, Israeli media reported. The Saudi team disputed the charge, insisting Ms. Fahmy sustained injuries to her arms and legs during training.
When teams have met amid international conflicts, the outcome has sometimes turned ugly. One example is the "blood in the water" match between the Soviet Union and Hungary's water polo teams at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, just two months after Soviet forces squashed a rebellion in Budapest. The teams exchanged punches and kicks throughout the game, with Hungary's Ervin Zador bloodied by a punch to the face from Soviet player Valentin Prokopov.
Yet, for every story like that match, there are numerous other examples of camaraderie. The image that has captured the world’s heart this Olympics is the selfie South Korean gymnast Lee Eun-ju and her North Korean counterpart Hong Un Jong posed for during the women’s artistic gymnastic qualifications. Olympic history is littered with other examples of sportsmanship transcending nationalism. One of the most famous examples occurred in 1936, as Hitler came to power in Germany: African-American runner Jesse Owens and German Luz Long befriended one another at the Berlin Olympics.
David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, says examples of friendship that defy nationalism are common among athletes who have competed internationally for much of their lives. But, he tells the Monitor in a phone interview, it’s absurd to expect the Olympics to be divorced from international politics, even if the IOC’s mission is to promote friendship and goodwill.
“It’s part of the world, simply. That’s it,” he says. “They can do what they can. But it’s not the Olympic movement’s responsibility to solve the world’s problems ... it’s basically about athletes competing against each other.”
Some experts, including Dr. Gleaves, have said competitions such as the National Basketball Association (NBA) offer a better model for internationalism than the Olympics. NBA players hail from all over the world, but don’t wear their countries’ colors on the court.
Even though the Olympics tread a thin line between national pride and international camaraderie, those lines dissolve over the course of the Games, says Mr. Wallechinsky. At the Opening Ceremony, each country processes into the stadium individually. Then, at the Closing Ceremony, all athletes walk out together.