PtG Article 15.10.2010

Sports organisations attempt to free athletes from Middle East politics

Sports federations are increasingly fed up with the way that athletes are affected by the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The IOC as well as UEFA are applying pressure on Israel to ease restrictions on Palestinian athletes. And in Iran, there is simmering resistance against the government's policy that Iranian athletes can not compete against athletes from Israel.

Earlier this month, IOC president Jacques Rogge visited the West Bank. In honour of the visit, an exhibition football game was arranged but the captain of the Palestinian team never arrived. He was held back at the border between the West Bank and Jordan by Israeli officials.

This is by no means an unusual situation. According to the Israeli newspaper, Hareetz, the 30 players on Palestine's national football team live in different countries and they all struggle to enter the West Bank for training or games. Back in August six players were turned back at the border when they were on their way to an international game against Mauritania.

Jibril Rajub is president of the Palestinian Football Federation as well as the Palestinian Olympic Committee, and he now is working his international connections in the Olympic as well as the football world to apply pressure on the Israelis to ease the restrictions.

When Rogge arrived in Palestine, Rajub immediately asked him to speak up against Israel's restrictions on the free movement of athletes and sports good in the West Bank and Gaza.

Rogge responded positively, and according to the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, the IOC president has invited Israeli and Palestinian sports officials to meet at IOC headquarters in Switzerland to find ways to resolve the problem.

"We can bring the unanimous voice of the world of sport to ask political authorities to remove obstacles to free circulation. The IOC is a sports organisation, it is not a political or sovereign organisation. The IOC only has the power of persuasion, but I will try to persuade the people I meet," Rogge said at a press conference during his visit to the area.

UEFA threatens Israel with expulsion

Whilst Rogge wants to progress with talks, the president of the European Union of Football Associations (UEFA), Michel Platini, is taking a much more confrontational approach. He suggests that if Israel wants to continue being part of UEFA, Israel must end restrictions on Palestinian athletes.

"Israel must choose between allowing Palestinian sport to continue and prosper or be forced to face the consequences for their behaviour. We accepted them in Europe and furnished them with the conditions for membership, and they must respect the letter of the laws and international regulations otherwise there is no justification for them to remain in Europe," Platini said after a meeting with Jibril Rajub.

Cracks in support for boycotting Israeli athletes

Meanwhile, on the other side of the conflict, the support for continuing Iran's policy of boycotting Israeli athletes in sports competitions is no longer unanimous. According to the independent Middle East Affairs Information Center, Crethiplethi, the sports sections of Iran's news websites have been preoccupied with a report that the leader of the Office of Sports should have asked the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to reconsider the policy.

Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has not acknowledged Israel as a sovereign state but calls it the Zionist state. Iranian athletes have not competed against Israelis at international competitions as a sign of solidarity with the Palestinian and have instead withdrawn from competitions claiming injury or other reasons.

Wrestling lost chance of medal

This happened at the Youth Olympics in Singapore in August when Iranian Mohammad Soleimani did not show up for a taekwondo final against Israel's Gili Haimovitz, stating injury. And again in September, when an Iranian wrestler was forced to withdraw from the World Wrestling Championship because he was drawn against an Israeli opponent.

The head of Iranian Wrestling Federation later told the Iranian news agency INRA that Iran had lost a definite chance to win a medal, and that over the past 30 years, Iranian athletes had paid a heavy price to protect the rights of the Palestinian people.

Attempt at change was not successful

It was this remark that prompted the request to reconsider the policy. The request did not meet with success. According to Crethiplethi, several top sports personalities criticised the attempt to undermine Iran's principle of boycotting Israeli athletes, and the pressure was so strong that the leader of the Office of Sport was forced to release a statement denying that he had ever sent a letter.But the secretary of the Iranian Olympic committee still believes that the issue should at least be brought to the attention of the country's leaders.

"Not acknowledging the Zionist regime (Israel) is a principal policy of Iran but still a solution should be found for getting out of this crisis and settle the problem somehow at international level", Bahram Afsharzadeh, told ISNA.

"If we face athletes from the Zionist regime at the Olympics and do not attend, then the International Olympic Committee might realise we did this intentionally," he said.