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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

When they say they don't want to politicize sport . . .

Shahar Peer of Israel, the # 48-ranked women's singles player, was denied an entry visa to the United Arab Emirates to play in this week's Barclays Dubai Tournament, citing security fears of having an Israeli playing in Dubai in the wake of the recent military conflict in Gaza. The denial, by the way, came on Saturday night, with Peer's first match scheduled for Monday. The Tennis Channel refused to broadcast the tournament following the UAE's decision.

The tournament organizer, Dubai Duty Free, said Peer's "presence would have antagonized our fans." The statement then added "We do not wish to politicize sports, but we have to be sensitive to recent events in the region and not alienate or put at risk the players and the many tennis fans of different nationalities that we have here in the UAE."

Sorry, folks; you cannot have it both ways. Shahar Peer is neither an Israeli political official nor a member of the Israeli military; she played no role in the events in Gaza and those events have nothing to do with her--and certainly nothing to do with her as a tennis player. You have banned an Israeli player from the tournament (the country, actually) explicitly on the ground that her mere presence as an Israeli (playing for herself, not even on behalf of her country) would "antagonize" and "alienate" people and be insensitive of recent (political) events. By definition, you are politicizing sports; you are incorporating socio- and geo-political considerations having nothing to do with sport into decisions decisions about who gets to participate in a sporting event. And it is insulting and dishonest to claim otherwise.

This is not necessarily to criticize politicizing sport. If you believe that the actions of Israel are such that its citizens should not be permitted to participate in international competitions, make that argument; but acknowledge that you are being explicitly political--and take the hit when others respond to those political positions, as by (perhaps) pulling the event off the WTA schedule.

Interestingly, this whole thing might be repeated at next week's men's tournament. Andy Ram, an Israeli doubles specialist, still is waiting for his visa.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 17, 2009 at 08:06 PM in Current Affairs, Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


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I agree 100 % with Dave that sport is heavily and inherently politicized, perhaps appropriately so. I have noted in the past that tennis is starting to look and sound like the Olympics, with national pride becoming bound up with a player's success and cheering taking on explicitly nationalist overtones. I guess my objection is to the event organizers making blatantly political decisions, but denying that politics are part of sport.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Feb 17, 2009 11:43:50 PM

Oh, and also: this isn't the first time this issue has arisen. In World Cup Qualifying, the Israeli national soccer team competes in the European subdivision, not the Asian Football Confederation as does every other Middle Eastern nation. The reason is obvious: having Israel play soccer games against the likes of Saudi Arabia and Iran would simply be too incendiary. It's annoying, and I think it's largely the Arab nations who refuse to be grownups about the whole thing, but everyone agrees that in light of the potential for violence and disruption, it's better just to have Israel in with Europe, even though it makes little geographic sense. As for Peer, not having her in the Dubai tournament is annoying and seems unfair, but it's unlikely to do too much damage to her. There are countless other tournaments she can compete in, so exclusion from one is not likely to adversely affect her rankings or sharpness.

Posted by: Dave | Feb 17, 2009 11:42:24 PM

This is a really hard chicken-and-egg question. I have no doubt that people in Arab countries would have a major objection to Israeli athletes competing in their domestic sports competitions, so it seems plausible that UAE would want to deny Peer's visa to avoid potential conflict. On the other hand, that UAE fans would take out their political opinions about Gaza on an athlete seems misplaced and typically overwrought. In other words, it is irritating that Peer has to bear the cost of UAE citizens' political anger, regardless of whether you think that anger is justified.

As for the question of politicizing sport, yes the UAE has it wrong, but not necessarily because what they did created a political issue where there was not one before. Rather, sports is inherently wound up with politics--including tennis, as I was reminded when fan violence broke out at the Aussie Open after the match between Serbia's Novak Djokivic and America's Bosnian-born Amer Delic--and pretending that it can be otherwise is naive.

Posted by: Dave | Feb 17, 2009 11:37:25 PM

"Seven Palestinian scholars may lose their prized Fulbright scholarships to attend American universities because Israel won't let them out of the Gaza Strip." ABC News: Fulbright Scholars Trapped by Gaza Blockade, at http://abcnews.go.com/International/Story?id=4964329&page=1 (Published May 30, 2008, last visited Feb. 17, 2009).

Posted by: did you blog about this? | Feb 17, 2009 10:09:09 PM


While you're absolutely right that she is not now a member of the Israeli military, as we're informed from her Wikipedia entry:

"As a 19-year-old, Pe'er joined the Israeli military, as military service is mandatory in Israel, where she excelled in rifle marksmanship during her elementary combat training. When not abroad participating in tennis tournaments, she spends her mornings working as an administrative secretary for the Israeli military, and her afternoons practicing tennis."

See the story and accompanying photograph from the Jerusalem Post: http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull&cid=1129540635307

This information *may* have some bearing on why the tournament organizers were concerned about the possible reactions of some in attendance at the event (I'm not saying I agree with it or that it's necessarily justifiable).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Feb 17, 2009 9:57:16 PM

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