More than 11,000 world athletes have converged on Brazil’s second largest city, Rio de Janeiro, for the 2016 Summer Olympics, which began on Aug. 5. Despite the problems that led up to the games, such as Rio’s issues with pollution and crime, and the threat of the Zika virus, many have also hailed the games as bringing forth an Olympic spirit of peace and friendly competition during a time of global stress and conflict.
Yet, before and shortly after the games began, athlete delegations from Lebanon and Saudi Arabia had already violated this spirit by bringing their respective countries’ ongoing conflict with Israel to the Rio games.
On Aug. 5, the Lebanese delegation to the games refused to share a bus meant to take the athletes to the opening ceremony with the Israeli team, which had been designated to share the bus with them. Subsequently on Aug. 7, Saudi Arabian judoka Joud Fahmy forfeited her first-round match against Christianne Legentil from Mauritius. According to the Saudi Olympic team, Fahmy had sustained injuries to her arm and leg during training and was advised not to compete. However, Israeli media has reported that Fahmy dropped out to avoid competing against Israeli judo fighter Gili Cohen in the next round.
“The Lebanese behavior is not surprising; this is the norm and there are few if no exceptions to boycotting Israel and Israelis,” Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, told JNS.org, while “the Saudi action is more interesting.”
According to reports about the incident with Lebanon, Lebanese delegation head Salim al-Haj Nicola physically prevented Israeli team members from boarding the bus, forcing them ultimately to seek alternate transportation to Brazil’s Maracanã Stadium. Nicola later told Lebanese media that the Israeli delegation had been “looking for trouble.”
Israeli sailing coach, Udi Gal, posted an emotional update in Hebrew on Facebook after the incident, arguing that the move by the Lebanese team went against the spirit of the games.
“How is it that they let something like this happen, and on the opening night of the Olympic Games? Isn’t this the opposite of what the Olympics represent and [don’t the actions of the Lebanese delegation] work against it?” he wrote, according to a translation by Yedioth Ahronoth.
Pipes explained that such boycotts of Israeli athletes by Muslim countries are nothing new. There have been dozens of incidents over the years in which Muslim countries, predominantly Iran, have refused to face Israelis in world athletic events. The Lebanese delegation’s behavior at the Olympics is also not surprising considering that the Iranian-backed terror group Hezbollah controls a large portion of Lebanon. However, the Lebanese bus incident was also unique because it spilled over into a physical confrontation.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, has had comparatively warmer ties with Israel recently, and the Saudi judoka’s decision to forfeit “confirms the perception that the [Saudi] government, especially under the influence of [Defense Minister] Mohammad bin Salman, is making major economic and strategic changes that meet with resistance,” Pipes said.
“Specifically, prioritizing the Iranian threat - and the attendant defusing of relations with Israel - is unpopular. The judo athlete expressed that reluctance,” he added.
Indeed, both Israel and Saudi Arabia have been united in their opposition to the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015, and continue to voice concerns over Iran’s sponsoring of terrorism and regional ambitions in the Middle East.
"The Sunni Arab states increasingly see the Middle East through the same prism as Israel," Israeli Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold said in an interview with the Financial Times on Monday, adding that Israel and Sunni Arab states are increasingly cooperating together in an effort to deal with common security threats. Under Prime Minister Netanyahu’s direction, Gold has spearheaded efforts by Israel to reach out to Sunni Arab leaders.
After the incident with the Lebanese delegation, meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) summoned Nicola and reprimanded him for his delegation’s behavior, making it clear that incidents of this nature “would not be tolerated.”
Nicola reportedly told the IOC that the incident had simply been “a misunderstanding.”
The heads of the Israeli delegation were pleased to hear about the action taken by the IOC and said they were eager to move on from the incident.
"I welcome the Olympic committee's treatment of the shameful behavior and anti-Semitism demonstrated by the Lebanese delegation," said Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, who had expressed outrage over the incident.
"I expect [the committee] to take this type of action in any instance of anti-Semitism and exclusion of Israeli athletes from competitions around the world. I thank the president of Israel's Olympic Committee, Igal Carmi, for his cooperation and for his support of our athletes,” she said.