With tensions mounting in the Middle East, Iranian and Israeli fighters could be facing off in the near future, much to the delight of the International Judo Federation, or IJF. After 40 years of boycotting Israeli athletes, Iran appears to have reversed course.
In a letter to the IJF on May 9, the heads of the Iranian judo federation and the Olympics committee declared that they would “fully respect the Olympic Charter and its non-discrimination principle.” Iran’s reversal may be the clearest example of how the strict enforcement of international rules, including punishment and threats when necessary, can eradicate sports discrimination.
The International Judo Federation credits anti-boycott pressure from its president, Marius Vizer, and the IJF’s apparent threat to ban Iran from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, for prompting the recent letter. Fear of becoming a sports pariah led Iran to abandon its efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state at international competitions.
Israel has faced sports boycotts since its founding in 1948, but the sports embargo receded as it generated more backlash, especially over the past decade.
The United Arab Emirates, for example, faced stiff fines and penalties from the Women’s Tennis Association for denying an Israeli player a visa to compete in a 2009 tournament. Tunisia’s tennis team was banned from the 2014 Davis Cup for ordering a player not to compete against an Israeli. By September 2016, it appeared that Tunisia had learned its lesson when it allowed its competitor to face an Israeli.
But progress has been like a game of whack-a-mole. A country will discriminate against Israeli athletes in one sport, face punishment, and correct its behavior but then continue to discriminate in another sport.
While the UAE complied in tennis, it continued to discriminate against Israeli swimmers. FINA, swimming’s international governing body, formally warned the UAE and Qatar in 2013 after they replaced the Israeli flag with a plain white ensign in a television broadcast and refused to refer to Israel by its name. Since the FINA censure, there have been no further cases reported of the two countries discriminating against Israeli swimmers.
Nonetheless, the UAE continued to harass Israeli athletes in other sports. In January 2014, the UAE informed a Dutch soccer team that its Israeli player could not enter the country. During the Abu Dhabi Judo Grand Slam in 2017, the UAE allowed Israelis to compete, but refused to play Israel’s national anthem or display its flag when Israeli judoka Tal Flicker won the tournament.
However, the UAE appeared to turn a corner at the October 2018 judo tournament when it allowed Israeli athletes to compete unencumbered and even became the first Arab country to play Israel’s national anthem at a sporting event. While this came amid many signs of warming ties between Israel and Gulf countries, it was ultimately the result of the International Judo Federation adeptly pressuring boycotters. In 2018, the IJF stripped the UAE and Tunisia of hosting rights for discriminating against Israelis and only restored them to the UAE after the country promised to allow Israel’s flag to be flown. Qatar also appears to have learned its lesson; it allowed an Israeli volleyball duo to compete in the 2016 Qatar Open and hosted Israeli gymnasts in 2018 and 2019.
Surprisingly, Saudi Arabia, which has significantly improved ties with Israel in other arenas, continues to discriminate. In December 2018, the Gulf kingdom lost the right to host a chess championship after it barred Israelis from competing. It should face escalating penalties until it changes its ways.
The effectiveness of such consequences comes through most clearly in the case of Iran, which ended its boycott despite the Tehran regime’s virulent demonization of the Jewish state. In late 2017, an Iranian wrestler intentionally threw a match, at the behest of his coach, to avoid competing against an Israeli opponent in the next round. The United World Wrestling Disciplinary Chamber banned the wrestler for six months and his coach for two years for this display of unsportsmanlike behavior.
Still, in February 2019, Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei threw a match at the Paris Grand Slam for the same reason. But the prospect of exclusion from the Olympics seems to have changed Tehran’s mind.
It may be frustrating and tedious for sporting organizations to grapple with politics, but relentless enforcement without exceptions is the most effective means to take down sports discrimination.
David May is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow David on Twitter @DavidSamuelMay. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD.