No Arabs in Israeli Olympic Delegation

Article Summary
Not even one Arab citizen will be part of the Israeli delegation in the Summer Olympics in London this year. Only two Arabs have ever represented Israel at the Olympics. Eran Lahav explores the debate over what is driving this.

The Israeli delegation to the Olympics in London will not include even one Arab athlete. Not that it’s been any better in previous years; only two Arabs have represented the country in Olympic Games to date. The Arab sector is convinced that this is due to discrimination, but the athletic establishment denies the accusations.

Even Mina Zemach [Israel's foremost pollster] would be hard put to explain why so few Israeli Arabs have represented Israel in Olympic Games over the years, when they constitute 20 percent of the country’s population. Out of 362 Israeli athletes in 14 Olympic Games  (Israel started to participate in 1952), there were only two Arabs: weight-lifter Edward Maron and football star Rifat (Jimmy) Turk. In all the delegations since 1976, not one representative of the sector has participated in the Olympics, not even among the 30 athletes that will depart for London in the near future.

This phenomenon is especially salient when compared to the Israeli football scene. Despite all the problems associated with the football team, it is perhaps the only place boasting real coexistence between Jews and Arabs. Scores of players from the sector inundate the major leagues and Arabs have also appeared in the national team throughout the years, headed by: Walid Badir, Zahi Armeli, Beram Kayal, Salim Toama, Abbas Suan,  and of course Rifat (Jimmy) Turk. The situation is reversed in the personal bests. No Arab athlete has even come close to the demands of the ironclad criteria for earning a ticket to the longed-for Olympics — meeting minimum qualifying standards or a high score in an important competition.

There are many reasons: the facilities in the Arab towns are not up to par; the athletes and their families find it hard to fund expensive equipment in the personal bests, and there is an overall lack of awareness regarding the existence of these domains. And who is to blame? The state and the sports establishment that discriminate against the Arab towns and Arab sport clubs? The associations or Arab local authorities that avoid investing in sports facilities? Or perhaps the members of the Arab sector are simply not interested in some of the sports, or maybe members of the minority group have no great interest in marching under the state’s flag? It depends on who you ask.

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Rifat (Jimmy) Turk, who was partner to the respectable performance of the national team in the Olympic tournament of 1976, is convinced that the state is at fault “for not investing even half a shekel on sports in the Arab sector. Many sports, such as swimming, rowing, and judo require a lot of money. Unfortunately, instead of enabling people to develop, advance and excel, everything is done to obstruct sports in the sector. There is a lot of good raw material, and tremendous potential.”

When the Israeli delegation will march in the opening ceremony in London, will you still feel that it represents you and the Arab sector, even though it has no Arab athletes?

“This delegation does not represent the sector, and when it marches I will not feel that it represents me. It’s not like the Israeli football team, which always had Arab players. If, for example, there was an Arab sailor, I would keep track of the games and hope that it won the competitions.”

A similar stance is adopted by MK Ahmad Tibi [leader of Arab party Ta'al (the Arab Movement for Renewal)]. “Israeli governments have neglected sports in the sector in terms of budgetary allocations, facilities and infrastructure due to discriminatory and inequitable treatment. The governments have barely supported athletes at all, let alone those in the Arab sector.

Perhaps affirmative action should be considered, and Arab athletes should be attached [to Olympic delegations] even if they did not meet the criteria?

“I am against that, I don’t demand that kind of [reverse] discrimination. Funds must be invested in the Arab sector, only then will there be results.”

Will all the Arab athletes really be willing to compete in Olympic Games under the Israeli flag?

“It’s true that this is a complicated issue, but many are only interested in sports and ambition, to achieve the Olympic dream -- come what may.”

Nevertheless, a representative of the Arab sector will, indeed, march with the Israeli delegation at the opening ceremony in London. Physical therapist Adam Badir will be there; he treats high-echelon athletes in the delegation, including gymnast Alex Shatilov and windsurfer Shahar Zubari. He departs for London full of pride, happy to represent the state, but also with strong doubts concerning the humiliating security checks he is likely to undergo in the airport. And he knows what he’s talking about: four years ago, at the conclusion of the Disabled Olympics in Beijing, Badir offered to remain there an additional week with a tennis trainer who had suffered a heart attack and required catheterization. “Before my return flight, El Al did a full body check on me and attached me to a group of Chinese workers who were ready to fly, even though they knew exactly who I was and that I was a member of the delegation. I love the country, I respect the Hatikva [national anthem] and feel like a king to represent Israel. All that—until you get to the airport. So you want to talk to me about athletes in the delegation?”

Badir, a cousin of the HaPoel Tel Aviv star Walid Badir, thinks that distance and money are two impediments that block the advancement of Arab athletes. “The budget issue is critical. Anyone who wants to train or play tennis has to go to Tel Aviv. There simply are no clubs in Arab towns. The local authorities and their sports departments don’t invest in sports. There is much neglect, mainly on the part of the state. Parents have to invest a lot of money so that their children can participate in sports. I think that there should be affirmative action so that Arab athletes will feel proud in the state.”

Of course, Badir is not the only Arab athlete who undergoes the nightmare of meticulous security checks in Ben-Gurion airport. The successful breaststroke swimmer Jowan Qupty —whose name has risen to the headlines recently due to a clash with the Swimming Association that refused to send him to the EU Swimming Championship—complained a few months ago in an interview in this supplement about similar indignities. Qupty’s family claimed that the association chose another swimmer with worse results than his for the championship, partly due to discrimination based on his Arab origin. The court intervened and forced the association to send Qupty to the competition. After he was not successful there, the association lost no time in settling accounts with the swimmer and his family, and accused them of racism and anti-Semitism.

Qupty’s trainer, Meno Mai [Emanuel Maayan], sounded more conciliatory. ”In general, everything depends on the athlete’s results, but there’s no doubt that sports development in the sector is inadequate.”

Resource Deficiency

All those interviewed for this report point to problems in infrastructure and resources. The athletes and their families do not have the means to finance athletic activity and acquire the expensive equipment necessary in some of the sports. In addition, the Arab towns lack decent sports facilities. 

“In sailing, for example — the most successful representative Israeli sport — equipment costs tens of thousands of shekels, and the association cannot always afford to spend the money. Evidently, the ocean doesn’t belong to us,” says Fadi Mustafa, of Israeli sports channel's Arab program "Raida El Hamisa." “It’s not like boxing where a lot of Arabs star.”

Yehuda Maayan, chairman of the Israel Sailing Association, admits that the situation is bad. “In my opinion, the local authorities are to blame. It is possible that they prefer to invest in soccer and not in personal bests. It’s not as if there is a guiding hand from on high saying, ‘Russians, no, Poles, yes, Arabs, no.’ Jaffa, for example, is right next to the ocean but Arabs don’t come; even in Akko, attempts made over the years to conduct water activities have been unsuccessful. There are no Russian immigrants with us in sailing, just like no Arabs. Maybe it’s a question of education [culture], maybe sailing simply doesn’t interest Arabs.”

It turns out that once upon a time, Israel had an outstanding surfer, Ali Hamid from Akko, who won competitions in the 1980s. He even had a shot at the Los Angeles Olympics but preferred to focus on studying physical education in the Wingate Institute. Ali also founded a flotilla in Akko, but lack of support of any sports association led to its rapid closure. “Even when things advance in Israel, someone always come to put a spoke in the wheel. And in general, sailing as a sport stirs up very little interest in the [Arab] sector” Maayan says.

Even today, the few active Arab sailors face an uphill battle. The chairman of the Sailing Association in Akko, Lior Dahan, talks about attempts to harm Arab athletes in his association. “On our way out to the ocean, we come up against a lot of Arabs on the beach and that leads to trouble. They toss out comments to the Arab sailors ‘What are you doing’ and curse them for training in a Jewish club. Once we went out to sea with a group of Arab girls, in cooperation with the community center. Along came an Arab journalist from the Galilee and he photographed the girls on the background of a navy officers school we had passed on the way, and wrote, “Arab girls in service of the Zionist navy.’ This was despite the fact that the activity had no connection at all with the army. They almost cut off the head of the community center’s director.”

Edward Maron, the Arab weightlifter from Haifa who represented us in the Rome Olympics in 1960, reaching the 18th spot says fifty-two years after he marched with the Israeli flag in the opening ceremony, he is sure that the Israeli representation is determined only according to criteria.

“There’s a minimum you have to meet and if Arab athletes didn’t meet the minimum, that means that they weren’t good enough.”

Yet there aren’t Arab Olympic athletes even in boxing, an especially popular sport in the Arab sector and one that does not require expensive equipment. Taufiq Bsisi and Yusuf Abd-al-Ghanim almost made it to previous Olympic Games, but missed the mark. The chairman of the association, William Shehada, claims that the problem is budget allocations. “To be successful, you have to give a salary to a boxer, also pay for his trainer and send him to competitions. But in Israel, the system works in reverse; they tell you, show us your results, then you’ll get money.” Tawfiq Basisi, who competed as a super heavyweight boxing champion, goofed up and lost the ticket to the Sidney Olympics in 2000. He, too, feels that the problem is that not enough money is invested in boxing, as compared to other sports. “The inequality is between the different sports, not between Arabs and Jews,” says Basisi.

In the main games — athletics and swimming — the major problem is the lack of proper facilities. Juman Jubran, for example, Israel’s racing champion under age 20, for the 100 meter dash, is forced to travel every day to school in Nazareth Elite in order to train, and even there awaits only a simple sand surface for her use, not a proper track. Juman Jubran also won the national long jump title, even though she cannot practice because of the lack of a proper jumping pit. “The depth of the pit is barely a few centimeters. It’s simply dangerous to practice there. The Olympics is my dream, but under these conditions it’s very difficult.” Juman Jubran’s trainer, Mark Bleichman, is convinced that she can succeed. “Just let her work,” he asks.

There has been progress in the Arab sector regarding swimming skills, despite the fact that the Arab towns lack proper training swimming pools. Dawa Masrawa, the girl from Taibeh who made waves when she won the Israeli championship and even represented Israel in the world championship, does not have to worry about travelling long distances to a proper swimming pool because she trains in the Beit Berl [college] pool, only about 20 minutes ride from her town. While some of the Arab towns do have pools, they are not appropriate for workouts on the high competitive level so when the athletes advance, they must travel distances to Jewish towns. “In her case, there was no racism,” says her former trainer, Hadar Avaro. “The [Swimming] Association backed her up in everything and helped her. She was just not built for the hard work involved.”

The Sports Gambling Council that underwrites the establishment of sports facilities, claims that the local authorities decide what facilities to construct, and in what fields. “In recent years, large sums have been invested in developing facilities in all the towns of the Arab sector,” was reported by the Council. The Olympic Committee that sets the criteria for participation in the Olympic Games, deny all claims of discrimination on its part. Gili Lustig, chairman of the Elite Sport Department, says that “the criteria are transparent, well-known and publicized in advance without distinction of gender, religion, and race. It is necessary to examine why entire populations, such as Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, do not meet the criteria. It is likely due to lack of facilities, lack of awareness, and lack of enthusiasm. This is not an issue of nationalism; the Arab athletes would very much like to participate.”

As Thomas Jefferson said, “There is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals.”

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Found in: sport, olympics, london, israel, discrimination, budget, athletes, arabs
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