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Will the Olympics Committee Play Fair With Israeli Swimmers?



Two Strategies Spiralling Downwards in Gaza

After an impressive close second-place finish in the women’s 400-meter medley at the World Aquatics Championships in Qatar earlier this year, Israeli swimmer Anastasia Gorbenko acknowledged the emotional weight of representing her country amid global turmoil over the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas and Israel’s counter-offensive in Gaza.

An Israeli swimmer comes in for heckling

“I’m just so happy to be here and represent my country in this hard time. Being here with the Israeli flag means a lot to me and to my country, so that’s the best I can do,” Gorbenko, whose parents are from Ukraine but was born and raised in Israel, said in an interview that was amplified to the crowd.

Some boos rained down from the crowd when Gorbenko crossed the finish line, but louder heckling began at the swimmer’s first mention of Israel in the interview. Others in the crowd quickly tried to drown out the jeers and boos with applause and cheers. It was the first time Gorbenko has medaled in the World Championships in the 400-meter medley, though she’s been a strong competitor in the past, finishing the 2021 World Championships with a gold in both the 50-meter breaststroke and the 100-meter medley.

The meet’s organizers provided more security for the medal ceremony and the victory walk, and the crowd wasn’t allowed as close to the ceremony as usual. The award presentation went off without a hitch, but the anti-Israel message was delivered, making international headlines on CNN, the Associated Press, Reuters, and numerous other news outlets.

A meet in Doha? Is the Olympic Federation serious?

The incident came as no surprise to parents and supporters of the Israeli Olympic swimming team, who had spent months urging the World Aquatics Federation to relocate the February meet planned for Doha to a more neutral location.


They argued that failing to do so would risk the Israeli team’s security and subject the young athletes to a predictable intimidation campaign that could impact their performances. Nearly all of those who didn’t attend were training on U.S. college campuses, including the University of California at Berkeley, Northwestern University, and Stanford University, where intense antisemitic protests have been roiling campuses for months, with many Jewish students expressing outrage and fear over being targeted for their faith and Jewish and Israeli heritage.

But the federation didn’t budge and moved forward with the World Championship in Doha as planned.

That event typically would have determined who qualifies for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. Gorbenko obviously qualified, and several others on the team are well positioned to make the cut. But those supporting the Israeli team argue that the athletes who decided to sit out the Doha meet are no longer operating on a level playing field with their peers in other countries. 

Even the three Israeli women’s team members who decided to compete in Doha took precautions by traveling with extra security and covering any logos mentioning Israel on their clothing and gear.

Many Israeli swimmers don’t care to travel to Doha

Now, some of the team’s supporters are pressing the International Olympic Committee and the World Aquatics Federation to provide more Olympic qualifying opportunities for the Israel athletes who decided to stay home and not risk competing in Doha.


Those supporting the Israeli swim team are pressing the federation for answers – Why should the athletes who decided not to attend the Doha event out of concern for their safety and ability to compete at their highest performance levels while under duress be punished when there’s such an easy fix?

The IOC and World Aquatics could easily allow make-up qualifying opportunities during the team trials in Netanya, Israel, scheduled this week from June 5-8, or at the European Championships in Belgrade June 10-23, advocates of the accommodation argue. Adding time trials, which are routinely conducted in connection with major meets, wouldn’t require extra costs or logistical issues.

Proponents argue that any qualifying Israeli relay could easily be added to the roster as a 17th team, and the athletes could swim in an unused lane in each of the added preliminary heats during the Olympics.

A repeat of the Munich Massacre

“I urgently request the IOC allow the Israel team to implement time-trials during their own Olympic trials in Netanya [this week] – where they can try to qualify for three additional relay events,” said Eric Spitz, a Jewish tech and sports businessman whose daughter is a dual citizen of Israel and the United States and an Israeli women’s swim team member. “This would allow Israeli athletes who could not compete safely in Doha a fair chance to chase their Olympic dreams.”

In his letter to the IOC, Spitz also referenced the 1972 Olympics massacre that occurred in Munich’s Olympic Village more than a half-century ago. Attackers affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization infiltrated Munich’s Olympic Village and carried out the attack, which would eventually leave 11 Israeli athletes dead, along with a West German policeman and five of the eight assailants.


After the death of his Olympic teammates, legendary swimmer Mark Spitz (no relation to Eric Spitz), who won seven gold medals and set seven world records at the 1972 Munich games, was forced to flee Germany in haste, hidden under a blanket and fearing for his life.

During a 2022 event in Tel Aviv, IOC President Thomas Bach demonstrated a keen awareness of Jewish athletes’ security concerns. During a 2022 event in Tel Aviv, he apologized for waiting 50 years to commemorate the Israeli victims of the Munich Massacre “in a dignified way,” labeling the event one of the “darkest days in Olympic history.”

Special security measures?

Earlier this year, Bach also acknowledged the need for “special measures” to be taken to protect Israeli athletes, given the “heinous attack” on the Israeli team in 1972.

“The 1972 Munich Olympics serve as a tragic reminder of what happens when Olympic values are compromised, so let us not repeat those mistakes,” Eric Spitz wrote in his letter, addressed to IOC members.

The IOC declined to comment on whether it would provide more qualifying opportunities for the Israeli swimmers and suggested to RealClearPolitics that World Aquatics would be better suited to respond to questions about the need for more qualifying times for relays. World Aquatics did not provide a response to RCP’s repeated inquiries.


Deciding not to move the World Championship out of Qatar rankled advocates for fair treatment of Jewish and Israeli athletes in all sports. The country has recently tried to burnish its image, hosting the World Cup in 2022 despite an avalanche of criticism from human rights groups, but the comments of its minister of foreign affairs blaming Israel for the Oct. 7 assault drew intense international condemnation.

What happened to the Israeli hockey team?

Other efforts to discriminate against or treat Jewish or Israeli athletes differently this year have sparked international controversy. The International Ice Hockey Federation earlier this year banned Israeli athletes from international competitions as a way to protect their security but then abruptly reversed that decision after a fierce backlash.

The Israeli hockey team won the silver medal last year in its division. After the Oct. 7 attacks, the IIHF decided to move a portion of a competition, originally to be held in Israel, to Bulgaria. But the move to ban Israeli hockey players from all international competition did not sit well with the National Hockey League, which expressed “significant concerns” about the decision.

FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, in mid-May postponed a decision on whether to temporarily suspend Israel over its offensive in Gaza and the West Bank, saying it would seek legal advice before considering a request by the Palestinian Football Association to expel the Israeli team. The motion called for Israel’s suspension over what it characterized as “international law violations committed by the Israeli occupation in Palestine, particularly in Gaza.”

Iran made a similar request in February to bar Israel’s national and club teams from competing in international play. Palestine Football Association Jibril Rajoub formally submitted the request, urging FIFA to “stand on the right side of history.” But Rajoub is hardly an ideal spokesman for the cause, as David May, research manager for Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, points out in a recent article.


A spokesman who made terrorist threats?

Rajoub earned a life sentence from Israel in 1970 for throwing a grenade at an Israeli military truck – though Jerusalem released him 15 years later in a prisoner exchange. Rajoub has continued the open public threats, declaring in 2013 that he would drop a nuclear bomb on Israel if given the opportunity.

“Intimidation and harassment of Israeli athletes, sadly, is nothing new,” May told RealClearPolitics in an interview. “While young Israelis face the greatest competitors in the world, they must also contend with hostile venues.”

“Fortunately for Anastasia, she was wearing earplugs, which helped drown out the jeers as she earned the silver medal, but the hostile, inhospitable environment added for her another layer of adversity,” he argued. “Qatar – and any other prospective host – should ensure that all athletes can compete fairly. Ensuring fair play is the bare minimum for hosting athletic events, which should bring people together, not serve as stages for discrimination and hostility.”

The IOC and World Aquatics is obligated, May said, to provide Israeli swimmers with opportunities to qualify “that don’t require them to travel to one of the main patrons of Hamas, a terrorist group committed to Israel’s destruction.”

How else can they qualify?

Spitz argues it’s only fair to allow the Israeli swimmers, including his daughter, who sat out the Doha meet, a chance to qualify for the summer Olympic games at a location where she and others feel secure and can fully concentrate on their performances.


“[Anastasia] Gorbenko’s unfortunate experience is a testament to the resilience and spirit of Israeli athletes,” Spitz said. “It also serves as vindication for the decision of those athletes who declined to attend.”

“The IOC must step up and show the courage to do what is right,” Spitz implored. “You have the responsibility and the power to make a decision that prioritizes the safety and well-being of all athletes.”

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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White House/national political correspondent at | + posts

Susan Crabtree is a political correspondent for RealClearPolitics. She previously served as a senior writer for theWashingtonFree Beacon, and spent five years asa White House Correspondent for theWashington Examiner.

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