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Egyptian judoka: more than meets the eyes

Islam El Shehaby refuses to shake the hand of Ori Sasson, his Israeli competitor at the Olympics. (Toshifumi Kitamura/Getty)

Islam El Shehaby refuses to shake the hand of Ori Sasson, his Israeli competitor at the Olympics. (Toshifumi Kitamura/Getty)

I inherited my love of the movie “Chariots of Fire” from my father. I can watch that movie a million times. The running beach scene to that gorgeous stacatto music alone. But the theme, the passion of one player to run and win no matter what, versus the other runner, committed to protecting his observance of his Sabbath no matter what, is what, time and again, ultimately draws me in.

“Chariots” was probably the first Olympics I ever really watched.

Now these past few weeks, beyond the actual Olympics, it seems that we have witnessed a meta-Olympics of sorts. In other words, what Olympic anti-Israel move will play out this time?

It’s sad to say, and some might cynically comment, well the Olympics have come a long way since at least they aren’t murdering the Israeli team (I actually heard someone say this). But come on, why is mistreating Israeli athletes and Israeli teams at the Olympics, and with utter insouciance to boot, acceptable?

After a week of wincing examples, along came the judo fighter and ultimately the Olympic medal winner Ori Sasson (who made us all so proud!!), and his Egyptian opponent, Islam El Shehaby. After Sasson was almost instantaneously victorious, he put out a hand for a handshake to his opponent, El Shehaby. As we know, to the boos of the crowd, El Shehaby refused the outstretched hand. At least he was made to return and bow to Sasson, apparently a ritual sign of judo that is inviolable.

I had so many reactions to this story.

Set aside the symbolism of the outstretched hand that is refused — a symbol of Israel’s outstretched hand in peace, so many times refused.

Forget about the double standard: If the tables were turned and an Israeli athlete behaved this way (which, despite the hate thrown their way they heroically and graciously have not) it would be front page news across the globe.

Then there is the fact of how sad and yet representative this interaction is. The bad behavior of an athlete from a country that Israel has actually signed a peace treaty with (in 1979) is a display of the best of what Israel can currently expect from a neighboring country. This is the country Israel is supposedly at peace with! Talk about a reality check. So what are we supposed to expect from the others?

Also, when this is what is on display at the Olympics — supposedly a neutral sports venue — we know in our hearts that this athlete’s distasteful behavior is probably representative of the majority of his people.

So what reaction is left? you ask.

I’ll tell you.

The truth is, I think this Egyptian judo athlete was somewhat courageous.

His sportsmanship was terrible.

But his participation alone was brave.

He defied the sportscasters of his country. They all pressured him not to compete with an Israeli at all.

Not knowing what the outcome would be, El Shehaby agreed to fight.

The remarkable point here is that El Shehaby stood his ground and went ahead in participating with an Israeli.

His country was not behind this decision of his.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if that is why El Shehaby declared his retirement the day after the humiliating loss — probably to protect his own life from the thugs in his country and from the religion that will kill someone for participating with an infidel, let alone a Jew. I wouldn’t be surprised if that in fact turns out to be the reason.

In Arab culture, loss or humiliation, even if it’s not to an enemy of one’s country, is significant. It is the lowest blow.

I suppose, shaking the hand of an Israeli after being defeated by him was simply too much for El Shehaby. But unlike another athlete who refused to compete with a Jew, El Shehaby did.

It goes without saying that all of this is ridiculous and offensive. A Jew, an Israeli, what difference does it make? In a fair world it ought not make a bit of difference. End of story.

But since in the context of where he comes from, it does, I grant El Shehaby his courage.

For sportsmanship, Shehaby take a page from professional US tennis player Jack Sock’s playbook. Despite his Olympic medals, the most watched video of him is when one of his opponent’s serves was called out of bounds. Sock, to his own detriment, stepped in and encouraged his opponent to challenge the call. You see, unlike the referee’s vantage point, from Sock’s vantage point he saw the ball land on the line of the court, not outside it.

Sock could have taken the point in his favor and no one would have been the wiser.

So, that kind of honesty in such a pressured high stakes scenario — now that is a paradigm of sportsmanship.

That is playing for the love of the game, rather than just to win.

That is bringing humanity, honesty and menschlichkeit, above all.

Maybe not quite to the level of inspiration in “Chariots of Fire,” but, thank you, Jack Sock.

In the meantime, I will hold out hope for a day when Jews and Israeli athletes are not held to a bigoted standard, nor are Muslim Arabs held to a different analytic context for their less than stellar behavior because they might get killed if they shake the hand of a winning Israeli opponent.

Copyright © 2016 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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