A defeated Egyptian athlete refused to shake hands with his Israeli opponent on Friday as Middle East politics spilled onto the judo mat at the Rio Olympics.
El Shehaby snubbed Or Sasson of Israel after being comfortably beaten in the judo bout – and was booed by the Rio crowd.
Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby loses to Israeli Or Sasson, refuses to shake hands in a major breach of etiquette. pic.twitter.com/kOU1oAd5YW
— Zaid Benjamin (@zaidbenjamin) August 12, 2016
The athlete, who is an ultraconservative Salafi, had come under pressure from hardline Islamists on social media and from television pundits not to participate in the match.
“You will shame Islam. If you lose, you will shame an entire nation and yourself,” one comment read.
“We don’t want to think what will happen if you lost to an Israeli. Victory will give you nothing. How can you cooperate with a murderous nation?”
The Egyptian did, indeed, lose. With a minute and a half left in the bout, Sasson earned an automatic victory with two throws of El Shehaby.
He then refused the outstretched hand of the Israeli athlete, and walked away shaking his head, leading to boos ringing out around the arena.
The referee called El Shehaby back to the mat and obliged him to bow, as is customary in the Japanese martial art. The Eyyptian gave a quick nod of his head and walked off.
El Shehaby refused to comment, as did Sasson. The Israeli lost his semifinal match to top-ranked Teddy Riner of France but still has the chance to fight for a bronze medal later on Friday.
Asked about El Shehaby’s actions, Israeli team press attaché Brurya Bigman said: “This is his problem. It’s not our problem.”
She said she had not spoken to Sasson about it and didn’t know how it had affected him.
“If you ask me, it’s a psychological thing,” she said.
Ofir Gendelman, Arabic language spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, called the incident “shocking”.
In a Twitter post, he said it “goes against the spirit of Rio 2016,” writing in Arabic said that “sports are not the field for politics and extremism.”
An Egyptian television pundit had also urged El Shehaby not to take part in the match beforehand.
“My son watch out, don’t be fooled, or fool yourself thinking you will play with the Israeli athlete to defeat him and make Egypt happy,” said Mataz Matar from the Islamist-leaning network Al-Sharq network.
“Egypt will cry; Egypt will be sad and you will be seen as a traitor and a normalizer in the eyes of your people.”
The International Judo Federation called it a sign a progress that the fight even took place between the two athletes.
“This is already a big improvement that Arabic countries accept to (fight) Israel,” spokesman Nicolas Messner said in an email. The competitors were under no obligation to shake hands, but a bow is mandatory, he added.