POSTED: February 4th 2011

JOHN GOODBODY: IOC makes start on Israel and Palestine . . . but it's only a start

THE JOHN GOODBODY COLUMN / An authoritative and exclusive series from Sports Features Communications

LONDON, Feb 03: The 2004 Olympics are remembered for many things.

There were the magnificent middle distance doubles of Hicham El Guerrouj, the first person to win the 1500 metres and 5,000 metres at the same Games since Paavo Nurmi, and also in the women’s 800 and 1500 metres by Kelly Holmes; there was Michael Phelps, the fourth successive rowing gold medal of Matthew Pinsent and the epic light-heavyweight weighlifting competition when Greek Pyrros Dimas narrowly failed to win a fourth successive Olympic light-heavyweight gold medal.

However, one of the more disturbing moments came in the featherweight (under 66 kilos) judo event. Here Iran’s Arash Miresmaeili, twice world champion, failed to make the weight and was eliminated from the competition.

Nothing disturbing in that you might think, except for extreme carelessness since it was by as much as two kilos. Later however Miresmaeili was quoted by his national news agency as saying that he had done it deliberately. His reason was the nationality of his first opponent: Ehud Vaks of Israel, a country with which Iran not only does not have any diplomatic relations but even denies the right to exist.

The Iranian Government was so supportive of the fighter that it reportedly gave him $125,000 – and a ticket to Mecca.

The Israeli-Arab dispute is not only an intractable political problem, it is also a problem for international sport and the incident in Athens was a prominent  example, although there are many others since Israel is not able to take part in some competitions or be part of organisations to which it should be entitled to join.

The Olympic Movement, of course, is particularly sensitive over the situation of Israel, given that in 1972 their athletes were subjected to a terrorist attack in the Village, the worst atrocity in the history of the Games.

Simmering problem

However, ever since Palestine first took part in the Olympics in 1996, the relations with Israel have been a simmering problem. And this is why on January 20, Jacques Rogge held a meeting in Lausanne with the Israeli and Palestinian National Olympic Committees.

The IOC President had visited the region last October and was told of the Palestinians’  concern that they wanted  free movement for their athletes, coaches, officials and visiting teams through Israel, such as from the Gaza strip to the West Bank and vice-versa.

In return, the Israeli delegation wants the opportunity for greater participation in international events and organisations.

Both sides promised that they would do their best to comply with the desire of the other. However, it is difficult to see how the Palestinian Olympic Committe can persuade countries, such as Iran, to take such a hard line, even if they, in fact, wanted to do so.

On the other hand, the Israelis said that many of the Palestinian athletes work in various Palestinian security services and are therefore regarded with suspicion, possibly justifiably, by Israel, thus precluding freedom of movement.

Although both sides have agreed to work together, they are bound to refer any proposals to their respective governments. It seems as if the Middle East situation is bound to remain difficult until the political one is resolved. And that is likely to be a long, long way off.

** JOHN GOODBODY covered the 2008 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 11th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001

Keywords · John Goodbody · IOC · Israel · Palestine

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