One of the amazing traditions of the Olympic Games is that athletes – even from the days of the ancient Olympics – put aside any political concerns and compete against the world’s best athletes. At any Olympiad, there are stories of athletes who – despite the fact that their respective countries might be at war with one another or who might have opposing political views – become friends. The TV commentators are usually quick to point this out when athletes enter the closing ceremonies – not by country but as a mixed group. The symbolism is that the athletes entered the stadium for the opening ceremonies as separate countries, but they leave as friends.
It doesn’t always work out that way. You have probably seen this story coming from Rio:
RIO DE JANEIRO — An Egyptian athlete who refused to shake his Israeli opponent’s hand after their judo bout has been reprimanded and sent home from the Rio Olympics, officials said Monday.
The International Olympic Committee said Islam El Shehaby received a “severe reprimand” for his behavior following his first-round heavyweight bout loss to Or Sasson on Friday.
When Sasson extended his hand, El Shehaby backed away and shook his head, injecting Middle Eastern politics into the Rio Olympics. The referee called the 34-year-old El Shehaby back to the mat and obliged to him to bow; he gave a quick nod and was loudly booed as he exited.
Judo opponents typically bow or shake hands at the beginning and end of a match as a sign of respect.
El Shehaby, an ultraconservative Salafi Muslim, had come under pressure from Islamist-leaning and nationalist voices in Egypt before the Rio Games to withdraw, but competed anyway.
The IOC, which set up a disciplinary commission to investigate the incident, said the Egyptian’s conduct “was contrary to the rules of fair play and against the spirit of friendship embodied in the Olympic values.”
The Egyptian Olympic Committee also “strongly condemned” El Shehaby’s actions “and has sent him home,” the IOC said.
The IOC also asked the Egyptian committee to make sure that all its athletes “receive proper education on the Olympic values before coming to the Olympic Games.”
Immediately after the bout, the Egyptian Olympic committee had called it a “personal action” by El Shehaby, adding that he had been “alerted before the match to abide by all the rules and to have sporting spirt during his match with the Israeli player.”
Sasson, who lost in the semifinals but later won a bronze medal, had said he was not surprised by El Shehaby’s actions because his coaches had warned him he might be refused a handshake. “This was his decision,” he said.
Similar incidents have happened before at judo competitions between Israelis and Arabs.
Egypt was the first country in the Arab world to sign a peace treaty and normalize relations with Israel after decades of war.