If you look up “sport” in Webster’s dictionary, the very first definition is: “a source of diversion.” In other words, we play games as a healthy way to escape the stresses of the real world. For most of us, that’s exactly what sports do.
Sometimes, however, we bring the strife of the world at large onto the field of play. Certainly, the United States and the Soviet Union brought their political rivalry into the realm of sport until the fall of communism. The Brooklyn Dodgers brought the issue of racial equality to the fore when they signed Jackie Robinson to play on their team. Both of those examples had “happy endings” – the Soviet Union did fall and Jackie Robinson paved the way for the full integration of American sports.
However, along the way, the Soviet Union certainly had some propaganda victories as a result of successful athletes. And there were racists who tried to ensure Jackie Robinson’s failure as a way of holding down all African American athletes. Fortunately, those were only temporary setbacks. The successes of American athletes (against the Soviets) and African-American athletes (in general) have made the world a better place.
Sadly, there are still some among us who would like to use sports to divide and tear down rather than unite and build up. We see a classic example of this in the Palestinian effort to have FIFA – the (beleaguered) world governing body of soccer – suspend Israel from international competition. If successful, it would not be the first time that an international body had a different standard for the one and only Jewish state as opposed to all the other countries of the world. It is merely the latest in a long line of Arab or Muslim efforts to isolate and delegitimize Israel in the world of sport.
In 2003, a Saudi table tennis champion refused to play an Israeli at the World Championships in Paris, forfeiting instead. At the 2004 Olympics, an Irani judo competitor overate during the competition so that he would be disqualified for being overweight rather than face an Israeli opponent. In 2004, Libya hosted the World Chess Championship, and refused to allow Israeli competitors to enter the country. In 2008, Irani and Syrian swimmers feigned stomach illnesses rather than swim in the same pool as Israeli competitors at the Summer Olympics.
I could go on and on, but perhaps the most telling example comes from the 2003 SPECIAL Olympics, during which the Saudi team refused to play Israel in soccer, and the Algerian team did the same thing in table tennis.
On the flip side, Israel has never refused to compete against an Arab or Muslim country. Israel’s national soccer team has featured Arab players – including Abbas Suan, who scored an important goal for Israel in World Cup qualifying. Shahar Pe’er – the highest ranked Israeli tennis player in recent years – played at the Dubai Open after being a denied a visa the first few times she tried. Israel has always understood that sport has the potential break down the barriers that divide people.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read the Priestly Benediction (Numbers 6:24-26). In the third part of the blessing we ask God show us the Divine countenance (literally: face) and bless us with peace. It seems to me that the Divine countenance can be seen in the faces of our fellow human beings. But if we are not willing to step on the soccer field or sit at a chess board or jump in a pool with some group, then we’ll never see the Divine-ness that resides in them.
So, I know that FIFA has bigger troubles than what to do with Israel, but I hope that, somehow, reason prevails and this petition is denied. Sports should be used to bring people together, and not to tear them further apart.