Politics in Middle East Sports Far From Rosy

Iranian Soccer Club Zob Ahan

Iranian Soccer Club Zob Ahan

By Cole Paxton

Photograph of player for Iranian soccer club Zob Ahan courtesy of Varzesh 11

This article is Part Two of a Three Part series discussing sports in the Middle East. You can read Part One here.

Yarden Gerbi, a one-time world champion judoka from Israel, learned in early October that she wouldn’t be able to compete at an important international event in the United Arab Emirates.

She wasn’t injured, didn’t lose her spot on the national team or have other commitments at the time. No, Gerbi and the rest of the Israeli delegation were denied visas to enter the Emirates.

While the president of the International Judo Federation quickly stepped in to reverse the decision, the incident was just one of several recent political disputes that have plagued sports in the Middle East.

From religious and regional conflicts to questionable tactics and power struggles, significant issues challenge this corner of the sporting world.

Politics seeping into sport

Last December the 2016 AFC Champions League, a continental soccer tournament featuring the best clubs from across Asia announced its group stage draw. The League staged its ceremony with great hoopla, broadcasting live from a festive five-star hotel in Kuala Lumpur.

Iranian side Zob Ahan drew into Group B, matching up with Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr. Into Group C went Saudi team Al Hilal and Tractorsazi Tabriz of Iran. At the time, nothing marred the celebratory announcement ceremony.

The severing of diplomatic relations between the two nations changed the situation dramatically. The two Saudi teams announced, essentially, that they would not travel to Iran to play the matches. As a result, officials adjusted the schedule to push back the affected matches until April and May, when they hope formal diplomatic ties will be restored.

The rescheduling created an awkward situation. In four-team groups, each team usually plays each other team twice, once at each club’s stadium. With these changes, however, the Saudi and Iranian clubs will play all of their matches against the other teams in their groups before they meet each other.

In short, the changes caused a massive headache for soccer officials and could affect the competitive balance of the competition. Worse, the delay might not solve the issue: the matches must go on in late April, no matter the state of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Saudi Arabia has suggested playing matches in third countries, but Iran has threatened to withdraw from the competition if forced to relocate. In other words, if the two governments can’t come to some sort of agreement, the top club soccer tournament in Asia will be stained badly.

Sensing a theme

Sadly, political issues in sports extend beyond Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the Middle East, domestic politics also play a role in sporting controversies.

Such is the case in Kuwait, whose national Olympic committee was suspended in October because of government meddling in the NOC’s action. The government essentially wanted to tell sports officials what to do and make Kuwait non-compliant with several international sports charters. The Kuwaiti government actually stands as a repeat offender of Olympic Committee policies, as Kuwait was suspended in 2010 for similar issues.

This time, however, the violation had broad repercussions beyond the Kuwaiti federation. Kuwait hosted the Asian Shooting Championships shortly after being suspended in October, an event that was supposed to serve as a qualifier for the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Because of Kuwait’s suspension, however, the championships were stripped of their qualification places.

Amid the growing feud between the International Olympic Committee and Kuwaiti officials, Kuwait withdrew from the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), the regional governing body.

In maybe the most awkward part of the whole situation, the OCA is headquartered in Kuwait.

What is nationality?

An athlete’s name is announced over the speakers. She acknowledges the crowd and steps onto the top step of the podium. A gold medal is placed around her neck, and the national anthem begins playing.

It’s a tear-inducing experience for many, one that reminds them of the sacrifices they have made and the patriotism they hold.

It’s fair then to wonder how Eunice Kirwa felt during this celebration at the 2014 Asian Games, an Olympic-style competition held every four years exclusively for Asian athletes. Kirwa, representing Bahrain, won the gold medal in the women’s marathon.

But Kirwa isn’t actually Bahraini. She’s Kenyan, and had competed for her native nation up until just several months before winning marathon gold wearing Bahrain’s colors.

Kirwa isn’t alone.

Of Bahrain’s 12 competitors at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, nine—all track and field athletes—were naturalized Bahrainis, born elsewhere in the world. Put differently, three quarters of the Bahrain team in London wasn’t actually from Bahrain. Similarly, at the IAAF World Championships last summer, no fewer than 13 of Bahrain’s 17 competitors were born in other countries.

Bahrain isn’t alone in attracting athletes born in other countries; Qatar also relies heavily on imported athletes. There are endless examples across the sporting world of competitors changing nationalities. It isn’t illegal. But the Bahrain case is stark. Virtually all of the country’s top athletes are naturalized.

International competitions are meant to bring people together through sport, not drive them apart through conflict. They are designed to promote national pride and endless dedication.

Think about Israeli athletes being told they couldn’t compete at an event because of their nationality. Think about Saudi Arabian and Iranian officials overshadowing soccer players who just want to play.

Think about Kuwaiti government officials wanting to tell sports leaders what to do and hurt their athletes because of it. Think about Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes who see a path to international competition, so long as they pledge themselves to a totally foreign nation.

Think about it. It doesn’t fit the Olympic spirit.

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