Sports are supposed to represent the universality of humankind, but politics often intrudes.
The outbreak of World War II led to the cancellation of the 1940 Summer Olympic Games, which was to have been held in Tokyo, Japan. US President Jimmy Carter pulled the entire USA team from the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, over the invasion of Afghanistan. In response, the Soviet team was pulled from the 1984 Olympics in LA.
The 1968 Summer Olympics saw track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos give the Black Power salute during the playing of the US national anthem, to protest the contemporary and historical mistreatment of African-Americans, among other issues.
The 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany suffered a ghastly attack by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, that resulted in the death of eleven Israeli Olympic team members were killed, along with a German police officer. The terrorists received logistical assistance from German neo-Nazis.
The 2016 Summer Olympics have been relatively free of politics. The most notable has been domestic protest, with impoverished Brazilians angrily questioning why the government is footing an Olympics when it cannot pay teacher, police, firefighters, or provide clean water. It is a good question.
The most notable political action by an athlete was by defeated Egyptian Judoka Islam El Shehaby, who refused to shake hands with his Israeli opponent Or Sasson. El Shehaby is an ultraconservative Salafi, known to hold extreme anti-Israel views.
El Shehaby was under pressure before the event to forfeit the match against the Israeli. There was an unfortunate precedent. Years earlier, Iranian Javad Mahjoub forfeited a match, and it was against Or Sasson.
“You will shame Islam,” wrote a countryman. “If you lose, you will shame an entire nation and yourself. We don’t want to think what will happen if you lost to an Israeli. Victory will give you nothing. How can you cooperate with a murderous nation?”
El Shehaby said he would make the decision whether to compete or not closer to the match.
“The situation is very sensitive,” he said. “And I don’t want to discuss it.”
Then he decided to compete. And he lost. After Sasson won, he extended his hand to El Shehaby, who turned away shaking his head, to boos from the crowd. The referee directed El Shehaby back for the customary bow, which the Egyptian did, albeit very minimally.
Reuters reports that El Shehaby was sent home over the handshake refusal. The International Olympic committee said that El Shehaby’s behavior went against the rules and spirit of the Olympic Games, as well as the rules of fair play.
“The Disciplinary Commission (DC) considered that his behavior at the end of the competition was contrary to the rules of fair play and against the spirit of friendship embodied in the Olympic Values,” said the IOC said. “As well as a severe reprimand, the DC has asked the Egyptian Olympic Committee to ensure in future that all their athletes receive proper education on the Olympic Values before coming to the Olympic Games.”
El Shehaby explained his position.
“Shaking the hand of your opponent is not an obligation written in the judo rules,” he said. “It happens between friends and he’s not my friend.”
“I have no problem with Jewish people or any other religion or different beliefs. But for personal reasons, you can’t ask me to shake the hand of anyone from this State, especially in front of the whole world.”
El Shehaby has now retired from Judo.
And Or Sasson went on to win bronze, losing only to the most dominant Judoka of all time, Teddy Riner.