Israeli judoka wins gold at Abu Dhabi Grand Slam, hosts refuse to play his nation’s anthem

Israel had a good run in the first day of the IJF Abu Dhabi Judo Grand Slam, but you wouldn’t know it sitting in the stands. There were no Israeli flags visible in the IPIC Arena at Zayed Sports City, and the nation’s anthem was not heard. When judoka Tal Flicker stood on the winner’s podium as the gold medalist of the 146 pounds division, he did it under the International Judo Federation’s flag, hung above those of Azerbaijan, and Russia and Georgia, and the music of the International Judo Federation’s anthem was played. In fact, the 25-year-old Flicker isn’t a citizen of the IJF, but lives in Herzliya, Israel, just about 1,500 miles west from Zayed Sports City, over the Saudi desert; if an Israeli could travel there. The United Arab Emirates carries a supposed ban on displaying Israeli symbols, such as its flag.

“Israel is my country,” Tal Flicker, world bronze medalist and now the number-one ranked 146 pounder Judoka, said on Israel’s Channel 2 News. “I’m proud to be Israeli. The anthem that they played was just background noise, I was singing ‘Ha’Tikvah’” (‘The Hope’, Israel’s national anthem).

Flicker said he made his mind up to sing the anthem anyway, while the IJF one played, the moment he won the final match. He went on Facebook and wrote: “Everyone in the world knows where we are from and what country we represent.”

Somewhat famously, Sheikh of the east of Abu Dhabi and member of the royal family, Tahnoon Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is the patron of Abu Dhabi Combat Club, as well as of Judo and Jiu-Jitsu in various UAE and Jordanian public schools. (Suprisingly enough, Abu Dhabi Combat Club runs qualifiers in Israel, managed by local fighter and Bellator vet Haim Gozali). In fact, the IPIC Arena, in which the Judo Grand Slam was held, prides itself as being the home of Jiu-Jitsu in the UAE.

The Grand Slams are part of the International Judo Federation yearly world tour, and carries more prize money and points in the world rankings than the somewhat smaller Grand Prix. This is not the first time that Abu Dhabi refused the Israeli delegation to display its flags for its Grand Slam; in 2015, Judokas Sagi Muki and world champion Yarden Gerbi picked up bronze at the Emirates Grand Slam under the IJF banner. Gerbi has since retired, but Muki will start in Abu Dhabi again Friday. Unlike in 2015, Israelis were this time asked, for their own safety, to lay low and not to tag themselves in online messages stating their whereabouts. They mostly did, other than winning gold in the first day. This is of course also not the first time Middle East politics muddled international sports, and specifically combat sports, as some Arab and Muslim nations systematically refuse to let their athletes compete against Israelis. At the Rio Olympics, an Egyptian Judoka refused to shake hands with an Israeli opponent following a match. Egypt has signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

The twelve Judokas comprising the Israeli fighting team to the UAE arrived a day late, and via Amman instead of Istanbul, as visas lingered. Israelis are not allowed, let alone welcomed, in the UAE. The discriminatory policy of not letting them compete with their original symbols was imposed solely on them. This is strictly against the IJF’s own written ideals, and actually against a direct request sent from its head to the UAE Judo Federation. In a letter made public by the Associated Press, the International Judo Federation president Marius Vizer wrote to the United Arab Emirates Judo Federation president Mohamed Bin Thalub, that “all delegations, including the Israeli delegation, shall be treated absolutely equally in all aspects, without any exception.” The letter continues to state that “the IJF Statutes clearly provide that the ‘IJF shall not discriminate on the ground of race, religion, gender or political opinion’… According to these principles, which are binding for the entire Olympic Movement, including of course the IJF and all national federations and other entities involved in the organisation of any judo sports event, there may not be any discrimination of any kind at any event organised by or supervised by the IJF, including of course the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam.”

Well, there was. And while the Israeli flag is carried on the IJF website medals table, in the federation’s report about the Grand Slam first day, the Israelis, including Flicker, are listed as IJF athletes – the country’s name is nowhere to be found.

In the sport side of the story: In the final match, Flicker beat Azerbaijani and fellow world bronze medalist Nijat Shikhalizada, with a Moroti seoi-nage shoulder throw to Ippon, 25 seconds to the end. Flicker was looking for that Moroti the entire match, and landed it once for the Wazari (half-point) before securing the gold. He then pointed to the place in his judo-gi where his flag would have been shown. In the semi-final, in what was Flicker’s seemingly toughest match, he beat Kazakhstani Yeldos Zhumakanov by penalty in golden score. In the quarters, Flicker beat a Belarusian by ippon, and in his opening match, a Mongolian with two Wazaris. Flicker said, “I had a fantastic day, I’m really, really excited. I won the gold medal and I’m very proud to represent the country of Israel, especially on this stage, and this should place me as number one in the world again.”

Gili Cohen (Women 115 pounds) also had a very good showing, winning the bronze medal for the IJF entity.

You can watch Cohen at 54:55, Flicker final match at 1:31:50, and Flicker at the podium at 2:07:10

After hearing of Flicker’s victory, Israeli Culture and Sports minister, Miri Regev (Likud), a controversial figure in the country, said (via ynet): “The medals are a thumb in the eye of Abu Dhabi.” She then added, “Congratulations to Tal Flicker on the gold, to Gili Cohen on the bronze. This is a badge of shame for the International Judo Federation.”

Believe it or not, there was actually a lot of bickering on social networks in Israel; on whether the Israeli Judo team should have even traveled to Abu Dhabi – knowing in advance how it would go about – and now some further bickering, on whether winning like this is a boost, or a shame to national pride, and the such. Israeli Sports journalist Tal Shorrer, who was allowed to travel with the Israeli team, reported that at least those in Abu Dhabi he talked with were not aware of the controversy nor the existence of the competition.

Oren Smadja, an Olympic bronze medalist and the residing national team men’s coach, said this: “I’m very happy on insisting coming here – with a flag, without a flag, for us it’s about bringing these athletes to these levels, and proving to everyone that you can’t stop the country of Israel.” Israeli Judo Association chief, Moshe Ponti, before competitions began told reporters that their hosts treated them very well, and now commented, “I always said, we give our answers best on the mat.”

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