Israeli judo star Tal Flicker wins gold at Abu Dhabi Grand Slam
Tournament organizers refuse to raise Israel's flag or play national anthem
Flicker sings Hatikvah anyway, telling CNN "it was weird"
Winning a gold medal is usually a cause for unmitigated celebration.
But not for Israel judo star Tal Flicker as he stood atop the podium at this week’s Abu Dhabi Grand Slam, having triumphed in the men’s half-lightweight division.
Instead of Hatikvah, Israel’s traditional national anthem, tournament organizers played the official music of the International Judo Federation (IJF).
Instead of the flag of Israel, the IJF’s logo was raised.
“It was weird,” Flicker told CNN Sport from the IPIC Arena. “Israel is my country and I’m proud to be from Israel.
“I sang Hatikvah because I don’t know anything else. This is my anthem.”
‘The world knows where we’re from’
Flicker had feared this might happen, given the UAE has no diplomatic ties with Israel and like most other Arab countries doesn’t recognize it as a state.
“There’s nothing sweeter than the moment of victory, the 25-year-old posted on his Facebook page ahead of the tournament. “That feeling that you did it for yourself, the family, team, and of course for the country.
“With or without the flag, I will face the difficulties and any rival in front of me. We’ll do anything to get to Abu Dhabi and end up on the podium.
“Everyone in this world knows where we’re from and which country we represent. I am the proudest in the world to be Israeli.”
He and his 11 compatriots competing at the elite international event were already forced to wear judogis (judo uniforms) without the typical identifying symbols of their nationality.
Earlier that day, fellow Israeli Gili Cohen – bronze medalist in the women’s half-lightweight division – had also stood by solemnly as the IJF’s flag was raised.
“No Israeli anthem or flag. A disgrace to the spirit of sports,” posted the Embassy of Israel in the US. ” A disgrace to the spirit of sports.”
“It’s an outrage,” tweeted Emmanuel Nahshon , Israel’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman. “Blatant hypocrisy. Shameful.”
The UAE embassy in London and the UAE government did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.
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The IJF, for its part, contacted the president of the UAE Judo Federation insisting “all delegations, including the Israeli delegation, shall be treated absolutely equally in all aspects, without any exception,” according to a letter obtained by the Associated Press.
Principle 4 of the Olympic Charter outlines that “the practice of sport is a human right,” adding “every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind.”
But this is not the first time sport and politics have met on the tatami (judo mat).
At the Rio 2016 Olympics, Egypt’s Islam El Shehaby provoked outrage across the sporting community after refusing to shake hands with Israeli judoka, Or Sasson.
Judo’s moral code, created by the sport’s founder Jigoro Kano, preaches a set of ethics encouraging friendship, courage and honor.
Yasuhiro Yamashita, considered by many to be the greatest judoka ever, told CNN Sport earlier this month: “Judo is a bridge that connects the world’s people, cultures and countries,” adding “in this fragile world, judo gives us hope to overcome the obstacles of political tension, animosity and discrimination.”
Having beaten Rashad Almashjari of the UAE in the first round of the middleweight division, a second male Israeli judoka, Tohar Butbul, beat Italian Olympic champion Fabio Basile for bronze later on Friday.
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CNN has also contacted the IJF, the UAE Judo Federation and the Israel Judo Association. None were immediately available for comment.