Jews at the Rio 2016 Olympics: Tension and Triumph

Jews at the Rio 2016 Olympics: Tension and Triumph


Every four years, the world watches as the best athletes from all over the world come together to compete in the Summer Olympics, which were held this year in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.  The games are meant to be a showcase of athleticism, empowerment, incredible feats of willpower, and the pinnacle of sportsmanship, and yet for some countries these moments of would be glory are tainted by the dark undertones of repugnant antagonism.  Bitter animosity between athletes from Israel and athletes from its neighboring countries at the Olympic games has been a given for a little over six decades, and this year’s competition in Rio was no exception.  

The strained narrative of this year’s Olympics began long before the official competition even began.  During a world boxing championship that doubled as the Olympic trials, Syrian boxer Ala Ghasoun withdrew from the competition on the grounds that his participation would mean that he, “as an athlete, and Syria, as a state, recognize the state of Israel.”  Ghasoun’s decision was made by the Syrian Sports Federation and other Syrian officials, and his withdrawal from the tournament effectively ended his bid for Olympic glory.  Ghasoun stated that while missing out on the opportunity to go to the Olympics was a crushing disappointment, he was proud to have demonstrated loyalty and honor towards his country. He subsequently retired from boxing after the incident.

Ghasoun’s actions set the tone for what the Rio 2016 Olympics had in store for Israeli athletes. The first overtly confrontational conflict of the Olympics occurred on the night of the Opening Ceremony; a time traditionally dedicated to the celebration of the host country and unity between nations. The athletic delegation of Israel and the athletic delegation of Lebanon were slated to ride to the ceremony together in one bus, but when the time came to board, head of the Lebanese delegation Salim al-Haj Nicolas barred Israelis from entering.  It remains unclear what truly transpired between the two delegations, but ultimately the Israeli delegation did not bus to the stadium with the Lebanese team. The Israeli delegation took another bus to the night’s celebration where Israel’s largest ever Olympic team, 47 competitors, marched in the Parade of Nations.

By far the most publicized moment of Arab-Israeli tension at the Olympics came from the judo match between Israeli judoka Or Sasson and Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby.  After winning the match, Sasson extended his hand to initiate the traditional post-match handshake, but El Shehaby rejected the gesture and subsequently exited the mat.  El Shehaby’s actions were met with vehement boos from the crowd. Following the incident, both the International Olympic Committee and the Egyptian Olympic Committee condemned El Shehaby’s actions.  The denunciation came amongst reports that El Shehaby had been facing pressure from Egyptian nationalist groups to drop out of the competition rather than fight an Israeli opponent.  El Shehaby was sent home by the International Olympic Committee before the conclusion of the competition and the closing ceremonies.

But with all of the hostility, the Rio Olympics also brimmed with joy for Israeli athletes and for Jewish athletes in general. Or Sasson, the judoka whose handshake was rejected, went on to win the bronze medal in the men’s +100kg judo competition, and Sasson was far from alone in his success as both a Jew and an athlete.  

Jewish-American gymnast Aly Raisman is one of the great successes to come out of this summer’s competition. Raisman, a 22-year-old Reform Jew from Needham, Massachusetts, was  team captain of America’s “Final Five” women’s gymnastics team and helped the team produce one of the most dominant performances in the history of women’s gymnastics.  The five women of the gymnastics team walked away with a combined eight gold medals, four silver medals, and a bronze medal including the most prestigious award: the gold in the team competition. Raisman herself walked away with a gold and two silver medals, which, when combined with the two golds and bronze she won at the London 2012 games, made her the second most decorated female American gymnast of all time.   

In addition to her great showing, Raisman’s success was a major achievement in dispelling the “unathletic Jew” stereotype. Raisman has been open about her Jewish background and its influence on her life. She was a guest of honor at the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem and frequently uses Jewish folksongs for her floor routines.

Raisman and Sasson were joined by other triumphant Jewish athletes. American sprint swimmer Anthony Ervin, who medaled first in the 50 meter freestyle and Israeli judoka Yarden Gerbi who medaled third in the Women’s 63 kg judo competition, are both of Jewish heritage.

The Rio 2016 Summer Games will also forever hold special significance for Israelis and Jews in a realm outside of athletic achievement.  On August 4, 2016 the International Olympic Committee officially commemorated the deaths of the six Israeli athletes, five Israeli coaches, and one West German police officer who died in the 1972 Munich Massacre. The victims were held hostage by members of the Palestinian terrorist faction Black September in the Olympic Village and later killed. The Rio 2016 Summer Games marked the 44th anniversary of the tragedy, which had previously gone unrecognized by the International Olympic Committee for fear of upsetting nations opposed to the state of Israel.

This year’s Olympics were turbulent, but for all of the confrontations and accusations, there was accomplishment and pride. In spite of the pervading tension and remnants of hatred that persisted at the games, the legacy of the Rio 2016 games is ultimately one of pride and triumph.

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