Dubai's kind of sport: kick Israelis down the road

Updated: February 17, 2009, 4:35 AM ET
Associated Press

Every time a team or athlete from a neighboring Middle East state refuses to meet their Israeli counterparts on a playing field, the people who sanction the event -- insert the name of just about any international sporting federation here -- pretend to be shocked.

Then they promise the next time it happens, they'll bite the hand that feeds them.

Then they do what they always do: take the money and kick the Israelis down the road. The end game, apparently, turns on whether they run out of real estate or courage first.

The latest refusal came when the United Arab Emirates declined a visa request from Israeli Shahar Peer on the eve of the Dubai Tennis Championships, a tournament for which she qualified as the 48th-ranked player in the world.

The event is effectively sponsored and run by the Dubai government, and when he was there almost exactly a year ago, WTA Tour chairman Larry Scott insisted he "made it clear to the authorities, the representatives of the government" that if Shahar qualified, she must be allowed to play.

"They had a year to work on it and solve it," he said Monday. "We've spent time through the year discussing it. We were given assurances that it had gone to the highest levels of government. I was optimistic they would solve it."

They didn't.

A brief statement from the tournament organizer, Dubai Duty Free, confirmed the visa rejection, but offered no explanation beyond a reference to "events witnessed in the region" -- presumably last month's war between Israel and Islamic militants in Gaza.

Scott said fellow players were unanimous in supporting Peer's right to play, and that the decision to stage the event without her -- as well as the Tennis Channel, which canceled plans to televise the championships in protest -- was made in consultation with the 21-year-old Israeli.

He also said the WTA would consider sanctions afterward, including whether to scratch the tournament from its calendar.

"I don't want to get ahead of our board," Scott said, "but I'm pretty sure the conversation will start with, 'This can't happen again."

We'll see.

Last month, an Israeli basketball team fled to the locker room before a European Cup game in Ankara, Turkey, when hundreds of fist-pumping fans, some waving Palestinian flags and chanting "God is great!" advanced on the court and scuffled with police. After two hours in hiding, a shaken Bnei Hasharon team refused assurances the arena was safe and ducked out of the country at 3 a.m. under heavy security. Days later, host Turk Telecom was awarded a 20-0 win by forfeit.

At the Beijing Olympics, Iranian swimmer Mohammad Alirezaei withdrew from a 100-meter breaststroke heat rather than race Tom Beeri of Israel. Iran wasn't even warned by the International Olympic Committee, maybe because four years earlier, its flagbearer at the Athens Games, who happened to be the reigning world judo champion, pulled out of the games rather than face an Israeli opponent.

In May, 2003, a Saudi table tennis player forfeited his match against an Israeli at the world championships in Paris, was suspended for the season and returned home to a hero's welcome.

A month later, a Saudi Arabian soccer team refused to play Israel at the Special Olympics in Ireland. A spokesman for the organizers told the Irish Times the next team that skipped a match "for political or whatever reasons, they will forfeit that game." Instead of punishing the Saudis, though, the hosts simply shuffled Israel into another "ability group."

There's neither time nor space to argue the Israeli-Palestinian issue here. Nor even whether sports and politics should mix; they always have, and likely always will.

But protests are one thing and boycotts another.

It's why the Israelis have been scrambling for years to find people willing to play and places that will play host to them. Their national and club soccer and basketball teams once had to travel to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji to get games. Since the early 1990s, they've been forced to compete in tougher European competitions to qualify for continental and international tournaments. With opponents citing security concerns in recent years, they rarely get to play at home.

Even so, anti-Israeli demonstrators are racheting up both the volume and the menace, recalling the success of a similar campaign against South Africa decades ago.

"It's not the same thing," said Richard Lapchick, who is director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics and Sports at the University of Central Florida and was a leading American figure in the sporting boycott against South Africa.

"I could go into all the differences, but two stand out: There was unanimity to take action against South Africa, which isn't the case here. And even so, we made a point not to target individual athletes. That's terribly unfair.

"But it will probably continue unless a few federations and some players show the guts to stand alongside her (Peer). I think the Americans," Lapchick added, "would be a good place to start."

Venus Williams has already done just that, as well as plenty of Peer's other peers, among them Amelie Mauresmo of France and Elena Dementieva of Russia. Scott acknowledged the WTA could have forced the issue in Dubai, but he considered the time frame -- and no doubt, the cash that would be lost -- and put off any decisive action until the next board meeting at the earliest.

Money talks and the UAE has been throwing around petrodollars in recent years to lure world-class runners, golfers, racecar drivers and thoroughbreds to the desert, hoping to transform Dubai into a business and sports destination.

But the longer it gets away with doing business as usual, with the usual partners, the more it emboldens every other nation with sports teams and a grudge.

When asked during a phone call Monday night whether he viewed the situation in Dubai as a burden or an opportunity, Scott didn't sound like a man in the mood for a fight.

"At the moment," he said, "it's just a very regrettable situation. I've already heard from a number of our partners, sponsors and other stakeholders. They're all outraged. Tennis is the leading global sport for women, and we saw this as a broader story about how sport helps open up a region, breaks down stigmas and misconceptions.

"Considering what's happened, it's a major step backward already. Worse," he added wearily, "it's hard to see what good, if any, can come of this in the long run."

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index

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