Friday,24 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)
Friday,24 May, 2019
Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The no handshake that shook the world

The anti-Israel stance of an Egyptian judoka during the Rio Olympics continues to produce heated reaction, Mona El-Nahhas reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

On Friday, the Rio de Janeiro Olympic audience was stunned when Egyptian judo player Islam Al-Shehabi declined to shake hands with his Israeli opponent Or Sasson following the men’s over 100kg judo match. Al-Shehabi, who lost to Israel’s fifth-ranked Sasson in the round of 32, backed away when Sasson extended his hand for a handshake. Al-Shehabi, who is ranked 25th in the world, was summoned to the mat by the referee who ordered him to bow. The Egyptian player gave a quick nod of the head and walked off, amid loud boos from the crowd.

According to judo tradition, players bow and shake each other’s hands after a match as a sign of respect.

To exempt itself from any possible responsibility, the Egyptian Olympic Committee hurried to clarify that what Al-Shehabi did was of his own making.

The committee, representing the official stance, said Al-Shehabi should have upheld sportsmanship values.

“Al-Shehabi was instructed to adhere to the sport’s principles and standards during the game against the Israeli judoka,” the committee said in a statement released following the incident.

“What happened after the match was a personal action from the Egyptian player,” the statement said.

Attempting to defend his action, Al-Shehabi, 32, was quoted as saying: “Shaking the hand of your opponent is not an obligation written in the judo rules. It happens between friends and he is not my friend.”

Sasson went on to win the bronze medal.

It was reported that Al-Shehabi was pressured into taking part in the game after top state officials intervened. On Thursday, Ihab Nosseir, head of Egypt’s judo delegation at Rio de Janeiro, confirmed that Al-Shehabi would contest the event.

Minister of Youth and Sports Khaled Abdel-Aziz said: “So long as we accepted to play under the Olympic banner, we have to accept competition with all, regardless of anything else.”

It was reported that the International Olympic Committee would question Al-Shehabi. “The Olympic spirit should be about building bridges, never about erecting walls”, the IOC said.

International media outlets attacked Al-Shehabi for breaching a traditional judo routine, describing his behaviour as “unethical and lacking flexibility”.

Showing a rather lenient stance, the International Judo Federation said that “this is already a big improvement that Arab countries accept to fight Israel”.

IJF spokesman Nicholas Messner said there is no obligation for the players to shake each other’s hands. However, bowing is mandatory. Even though Al-Shehabi ultimately bowed, still his attitude “will be reviewed after the games to see if any further action should be taken,” Messner added.

Following the match, Israel severely criticised Al-Shehabi. Ofir Gendelman, spokesperson of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said in a statement that what Al-Shehabi did was an explicit violation of the Olympics rules.

Gendelman called the incident “shocking”. In a Twitter post, he said that “it goes against the spirit of Rio 2016”, adding that “sports are not the field for politics and extremism”.

A long list of Arab players who have refrained from playing Israeli opponents indicates the scale of Arab anger at the occupying country. One example is Joud Fahmi, a Saudi judo player who pulled out of her first-round match at the Rio Games ahead of a prospective second-round bout tie with an Israeli rival Gili Cohen.

Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, in 1979. The treaty remains unpopular among many Egyptians and the public mood has been firm in opposing any kind of normalisation with Israel. This may explain why the Egyptian government for decades has been cautious in taking any actual steps towards normalisation. Such cautiousness no longer exists, with official bilateral relations in fact witnessing recent relative warmth. However, such closeness has failed to change the public’s perception of Israel. The recent cordial meetings between Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri and Netanyahu in Tel Aviv and Netanyahu’s visit to the Egyptian embassy to celebrate the 64th anniversary of the 1952 Revolution have been widely met with resentment.

“It is true that the public’s dealing with normalisation has changed slightly, meaning that the issue no longer tops our priorities. Bearing in mind the current despair of Egyptians especially in the economic front, normalisation has become of less interest,” political expert Hassan Nafaa said. “However, this does not mean that Egyptians are going to welcome normal relations with Israel,” Nafaa noted, citing the public opposition of Al-Shehabi’s participation ahead of the match as evidence. 

Egyptians, via social media networking, have been pressing for Al-Shehabi’s suspension from the game, viewing Egypt’s participation with “such a criminal entity” as being shameful for Egypt.

Following the match, the defeat doubled the public sense of disgrace.

“You normalised and got defeated. Shame on you. It’s your disgrace and the curse of martyrs will follow you everywhere,” legal activist Tarek Al-Awadi tweeted.

Reaction to what Al-Shehabi did varied. While one side backed his position and viewed him as a hero, the other attacked him for taking part in the match at all.

TV presenter Youssef Al-Husseini said on a Twitter post: “Islam Al-Shehabi is not obliged to shake hands, just bow. Al-Shehabi lost a championship but won the respect of the people.”

Ahmed Al-Ahmar, a Zamalek handball player currently playing in Rio, said via Twitter: “In sports, you may win or lose. However, principles are indisputable. You are a hero and you will remain a hero.”

But others argued that what Al-Shehabi did does not reflect true heroism.

“To insult your foe, defeat him. It is not heroism to lose a match and then refuse to shake hands with your rival,” Ahmed Hossam, better known as Mido, the former star player and coach of Zamalek club, said.

Political activist Hazem Abdel-Azim asked “which message do we want to convey to the world except backwardness? It would have been much better if you withdrew from the beginning.”

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