The Nation / March 16, 2022
One of the greatest squash players on earth wants us to reckon with the hypocrisy of supporting Ukraine while ignoring other injustices.
Ali Farag is currently the number-two-ranked squash player in the world. Farag, who hails from Egypt, is also a Harvard grad and was arguably the greatest college squash player in US history, losing just twice in three years while leading Harvard to an unlikely national championship in 2014. In other words, he is a big deal in a corner of the sports landscape to which most people in the United States pay little attention. But in Egypt, which has the second-most squash courts of any country, and in Europe he is a star. Farag used his platform to do something as daring and perhaps as dangerous as the game he has mastered. He is pointing out the bald-faced hypocrisy of the sports world’s sanctioning Russia while giving other nations, especially Israel, a pass for their own military aggression.
Almost overnight the sports world moved to ban Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. In a matter of days, the IOC, FIFA, and a host of federations have suspended Russian athletes and banned Russian teams. They are making political statements that the war has disqualified Russia from international competition. It was all quite puzzling. The rapidity by which they acted seems to fly in the face of their “no politics in sports” mantra, which was used as recently as the 2020 Olympics to punish athletes who used the platform to speak out. Their robust response also highlights the double standard they apply in responding to one injustice while ignoring a host of others. This is especially evident when we compare and contrast the response to Ukraine with the silence of the sports power brokers to the enduring Israeli occupation in Palestine.
People in the sports world, suffice it to say, have not exactly tripped over themselves to point this out. That is, except for Ali Farag. After winning the esteemed Optasia Championship at Wimbledon, Farag said the following: “No one should accept any killings in the world, or oppression, but we’ve never been allowed to speak about politics in sports, but all of a sudden now it’s allowed. And now that it’s allowed I hope that people also look at oppression everywhere in the world. The Palestinians have been going through that for the past 74 years, but I guess because it doesn’t fit the narrative of the media of the West, we couldn’t talk about it. So now we can talk about Ukraine, we can talk about Palestine.”
The significance of his stance and his words were immediately seen by Institute for Middle East Understanding Executive Director Margaret DeReus, who told The Nation: “There is resounding significance when athletes use their platforms to call out the blatant double standards when it comes to the rapid response from a number of international sports organizations for Ukraine compared to other parts of the world, such as Palestine or communities of color in the US, who for so long, have been told to ‘keep politics out of sports’ or are punished when they use their platform to draw attention to injustice. But the crisis in Ukraine and the heartbreaking images we are seeing of the devastation there have awoken people’s consciousness around the world to understand that no arena is above the urgent need to protect humanity from aggression. Now is the time to answer the urgent demands of the oppressed and suspend Israel from sports leagues around the world until Palestinians live as free and equal human beings.”
The hypocrisies truly abound well beyond the sports world. The practice of all three prongs of BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) have been used against Russia by both government and civil society, but to even say those three letters in regards to Israel and Palestine can cost you your job, and in some states it’s illegal for the government to contract with groups that support BDS.
But it is sports in particular that provides the most damning perspective on the hypocrisy practiced by these international sports organizations and their media stenographers. Algerian judoka Olympian Fethi Nourine was even banned from competing in his sport for 10 years after refusing to compete against Israel’s national team. His coach, Hall of Fame judoka Amar Benikhlef, also received a 10-year ban. His personal BDS campaign was met not with praise but with banishment. In addition, campaigners have been calling for sanctions on Israeli sports for decades. Yet during Israel’s May 2021 11-day war on Gaza, which killed over 260 Palestinians and wrecked Gaza’s already impoverished infrastructure, neither FIFA nor the IOC raised even a comment. In addition, the targeting of Palestinian athletes for violence or imprisonment, the bombing of Palestinian athletic facilities, and the denial of freedom of movement out of or into Gaza for Palestinian teams has long been a feature of what we should call athletic apartheid. Similar actions led to the isolation of South Africa during the last years of the apartheid government and played a vital role in raising awareness about South Africa throughout the globe.
As for Farag, he is competing right now in another English tournament. If he continues shining a light on this issue, he may face repercussions. Farag also might be the start of a sea change in sports, where the power of athletes and institutions can be used to pressure countries engaged in war and occupation in spaces, heaven forfend, beyond Europe. If he is able to do so, his legacy will surpass whatever he does on the squash court.
Dave Zirin is the sports editor of The Nation and the author of The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World