Gaza on the tennis courts?

Try to imagine this scenario.

A young, up-and-coming tennis player, a Muslim from Pakistan, qualifies to play at Wimbledon. But on the very eve of the tournament, the Pakistani player is denied a visa by the British government. Though no reason is provided publicly, speculation is that religious issues, compounded by recent actions by Pakistan’s government in support of the Taliban, triggered the decision.

There would certainly be outcry, not just from Muslim nations and leaders, but from the West as well. Indeed, there would be pretty much universal condemnation of the discriminatory decision and the naked intrusion of politics into sports. There would be noisy protests at Wimbledon and possibly worse.

Well, it just happened this past weekend. Not in England for Wimbledon, but in the United Arab Emirates at one of the major tournaments — the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships — on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour. And the player refused a visa at the very last moment was not a Pakistani Muslim, but an Israeli Jew — 21-year-old Shahar Peer, the 48th ranked player in the world. The UAE decision has not been explained publicly, but apparently it reflects high levels of distress in the country over recent Israeli actions in Gaza.

So where is the outrage? Well you can find it in the New York Times, in some British media and, of course, in Israel and Jewish publications elsewhere. But it didn’t exactly rise to the level of universal chorus and condemnation.

And with 55 of the 56 players having arrived without incident in Dubai, the show, of course, went on — with Peer’s apparent blessing. WTA officials decided it would have been unfair to the players, to the sponsors and, of course unstated and above all, to the WTA to call a halt to the tournament over some bureaucratic contretemps that affected only one player. With the international economy in collapse, this is a fragile time in sports, particularly women’s sports. And Dubai is a big payday — $2 million — for the somewhat beleaguered women’s tennis circuit.

In fairness to the WTA, several prominent players, including U.S. star Venus Williams and France’s Amelie Mauresemo, were outspoken in their condemnation of the UAE action and unequivocal in their support of Peer. No surprise that Williams, a black woman who learned this country club game on the public courts in gang-riddled Compton, Calif., and Mauresemo, the only openly gay player on the tour, would fully grasp the perils of accommodating prejudice.

Moreover, WTA tour chairman and CEO Larry Scott has warned that while the tournament is proceeding this year, Dubai may not get to another chance to host a WTA event. He espoused the loftiest of sentiments to the New York Times’ Harvey Araton: “It would be a big blow to lose (a tournament) of this prestige and money, but if it comes to the principles of fairness and openness, there can be no compromise.”

Noble words flow easy. Actions are a little more complicated and risky. No country’s athletes have paid a bigger price for the intrusion of politics, prejudice and hate into international sports. The 1972 massacre of the Israeli Olympians in Munich by Black September terrorists is an event of singular horror. In that context, the exclusion of one tennis player from one tournament may appear to be a minor matter.

Still, the banning of Peer is a clear violation of the protocols as well as the spirit of international sports competition. And it is hardly the first incident involving Israeli athletes to make a mockery of those principles. Iranian athletes have repeatedly withdrawn from or forfeited competitions, citing phony injuries, illnesses or other problems rather than wrestle against, swim in the same pool as or even play wheelchair basketball against Israelis. After an Iranian judo champion failed to make weight at the 2004 Athens Olympics, thus avoiding a match with an Israeli, his country’s sports governing body awarded him $120,000 — the same prize as if he had won the gold medal.

Yet the notion of sanctions against these offenders is seldom even broached. Of course, most of these sports events are relatively minor sideshows for much of the world, little noted among the clutter of headlines. But what if Israel qualifies for the soccer World Cup in 2010? That now stands at least as an outside possibility. (Israel would have had a much better chance to secure a World Cup berth if it could compete with its neighbors in Asian qualifying rather than in the far tougher European ranks.) Iran remains a potential qualifier too. Would FIFA fix the draw to accommodate Iran’s aversion to Israel rather than risk an embarrassment on its biggest stage? Why do I suspect it would?

Dubai has been an emerging player in international sports and, not too long ago, even made noises about bidding for the 2016 Olympics. The national airline, Emirates, sponsors one of the world’s famous soccer sides, Arsenal in England’s Premier League, and holds naming rights at its London stadium. Besides the WTA event, Dubai hosts a big-money annual golf tournament, the Dubai Desert Classic, at which Tiger Woods has been a regular.

Woods has also designed his first golf course there, the centerpiece of The Tiger Woods Dubai resort that is slated to open later this year. Given Tiger’s background and heritage, one wonders if he finds it distressing that he is about to become part of one of golf’s tarnished legacies: the restricted club.


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