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Tokyo Olympics: Medallist rejoins Israel's army as boycott debate rages on

Avishag Semberg greeted by top Israeli military official, while elsewhere Saudi media urge judoka not to withdraw from facing Israeli opponent
Israeli taekwondo athlete Avishag Semberg celebrates after winning an Olympic bronze medal in Tokyo on July 24 2021 (AFP)

An Israeli taekwondo athlete who won an Olympic medal earlier this week has returned to military duty, re-igniting online discussions about whether athletes should refuse to compete against Israel

Avishag Semberg won bronze in the women’s 49kg category, becoming the first Israeli to win an Olympic taekwondo medal and the youngest ever Israeli medallist. 

On Wednesday, Semberg, who is 19-years old, returned to active duty at her military base in the Israeli Home Front Command, where she was welcomed by army chief of staff Aviv Kochavi. 

“Avishag is the first female soldier in the IDF to win an Olympic medal,” the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) tweeted, accompanied by a video of the athlete visiting the army headquarters in Alon, an illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank.

“The chief of staff expressed his appreciation for her impressive achievements at the Olympics and congratulated her on her victory. Avishag, the IDF is proud of you!”

The interaction sparked an angry response from pro-Palestinian activists.

“I look forward to a day when Israel is banned from the Olympics precisely for this disgusting reality,” one Palestinian wrote

“Her army colleagues just shot and killed a 12-year old Palestinian boy,” said journalist Yumna Patel, referring to the news that a child was shot dead by Israeli forces northwest of Hebron on Wednesday. 

'Palestinian cause bigger than sport'

Several social media users claimed that this development had shown why some athletes opted to withdraw from Olympic competition in order to avoid competing against Israelis. 

“She’s back at her base to resume the racial oppression Olympics on Palestinians,” said activist Abier Khatib.

“See, this is the reason the Sudanese and Algerian athletes withdrew from Olympics. They refuse to legitimise the aggressors, not [because] they are antisemite.”

Last week, Algerian judoka Fethi Nourine withdrew from Tokyo 2020 to avoid a potential clash with Israel’s Tohar Butbul in the men’s under 73kg competition. 

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"We have worked hard to qualify for the Games, but the Palestinian cause is bigger than all that,” Nourine said. 

“My position is consistent on the Palestinian issue, and I reject normalisation, and if it costs me that absence from the Olympic Games, God will compensate.” 

The athlete and his coach have since been suspended by the International Judo Federation, and will face disciplinary action. 

A second judoka, Sudan’s Mohamed Abdalrasool, dropped out of the competition too. Sudanese officials did not immediately comment on the reason for his withdrawal. 

Sudan was one of a number of Arab countries to normalise relations with Israel last year. 

Saudi athlete urged to compete against Israeli

Meanwhile, Saudi commentators have encouraged judoka Tahani Al-Qahtani ahead of her bout with Israeli opponent Raz Hershko on Friday, urging their athlete not to pull out.

“I hope that our Saudi hero will not withdraw from the sporting contest with the Israeli athlete,” said prominent Saudi intellectual Turki al-Hamad.

“After all, this is only sport, and Israel will not cease to exist with such a withdrawal. As for bad tongues, they will remain in the quagmire of evil, whether she withdraws or competes.”

The hashtags “Tahani al-Qahtani” and “We are all Tahani al-Qahtani” trended in Saudi Arabia ahead of the contest, as users offered their support. 

Translation: We are with Tahani and her decision to play in front of anyone!!

Our homeland is a priority and its interests are supreme, and all the issues of this world are light years less than our priorities!

Several Saudi pundits were quick to point out that Turkish taekwondo athlete Rukiye Yildirim had competed against Semberg in the bronze medal match, with little backlash on social media.

“It is permissible for the Turkish to compete with the Israeli, but Saudi Arabia is forbidden,” journalist Abdul Aziz al-Khames said, ironically.  

Saudi Arabia is yet to normalise relations with Israel. However, the two countries have forged strong clandestine ties in recent years. Turkey has openly recognised Israel since 1949, though relations have soured in recent years.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.