Israeli judoka Or Sasson became Israel’s second Olympic medalist in Rio on Friday but 48 hours later had still not been listed as a winner, according to the official International Olympic Committee website. He was, however, listed on the Medal Count page of the Rio 2016 Olympic site.
On Saturday night after the Sabbath, President Reuven Rivlin called Sasson to congratulate him on his win.
“We are all so very proud of you. This victory attests to your willpower and ability. My grandson just told me he wants to be just like you when he grows up,” the president said.
“I feel privileged for having been given the opportunity to represent Israel,” the athlete replied.
“You showed everyone that if you want something enough, if you dare, you can make your dreams come true,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, when he called and spoke with Sasson.
Sasson won the bronze medal in judo after a close match with Cuba’s Alex Maxell Garcia Mendoza in the over-100 kg category.
Last Tuesday, female judoka Yarden Gerbi won Israel’s first bronze medal in the Rio Games.
Sasson, who turns age 26 this week, demonstrated his good sportsmanship and impeccable manners after a match with his Egyptian opponent (who lost the match) on Friday by extending his hand, as most men do after the two completed the round.
However, Islam El-Shahaby was unable to do the same and instead, walked away. Nor did he comply with the basic rules of judo and the Olympic Games, and even bow to signify mutual respect. His brutish behavior earned him a reprimand: shocked officials literally ordered El-Shahaby back to the floor to bow, while facing a booing crowd for his bad manners. He later said he was quitting judo.
The Egyptian Olympic Committee later issued a statement saying the judoka was told to “have a sporting spirit” during the match with Sasson, which conveniently appeared to have let them off the hook, and left him alone to twist in the wind.
However, it’s not that simple: there was considerable Egyptian media incitement against this athlete prior to the match, and in fact more than a few veiled threats by the Muslim Brotherhood via that media. El-Shahaby knew full well that upon his return, regardless of the kudos he might receive from relatives and government-sponsored entities, he would nevertheless also face life-threatening situations going forward.
It’s a complex situation that most people who live outside the Middle East do not understand — and could easily contribute to this young man’s frustrated decision to “quit judo,” rather than face death threats for having reached the pinnacle of his career.
“Things happen in the heat of the moment that are not acceptable,” commented Mark Adams, spokesperson for the International Olympic Committee, who said Friday the IOC is launching a probe into El-Shahaby’s refusal to shake hands with Sasson on the floor.
Adams told reporters that although not all the details had yet been made clear, “We believe the Olympic movement should be about building bridges, not erecting walls. There’s absolutely no excuse for it.”
That is true, but as most of the Iranian athletes could have told him, the choice between life and death sometimes makes it easy to just walk away.
Hana Levi Julian