HEARD AT HALFTIME: Judo basks in catalyst role for Israel-UAE peace agreement; Leung says USA Gymnastics “not going anywhere”; “fascist salute” statue moved

Historic gold-medal ceremony at the 2018 Abu Dhabi Grand Slam, with (l-r) UAE Judo Federation head Mohamed bin Thaaloob Al Derei, Israeli Sports Minister Miri Regev, 81 kg winner Sagi Muki and IJF President Marius Vizer (Photo: IJF).

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News, views and noise from the non-stop, worldwide circus of Olympic sport (updated):

The surprise announcement of the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates declared last Thursday (13th) was a happy day for the International Judo Federation.

A lengthy story on the IJF Web site celebrated the agreement and noted:

“What if we also told you that it is a judo-inspired agreement? Many would not believe us, although they should.”

With echoes of the odd “ping-pong diplomacy” incidents of 1971 that led to the historic 1972 visit of U.S. President Richard Nixon to China, the IJF story recalled the sporting breakthrough between Israel and the UAE in 2018.

In 2015 and 2017, an Israel team competed in the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam event under the conditions that any national identification on its uniform be covered and that its anthem and flag would not be presented in case of an Israeli victory in any division. In 2017, Tal Flicker won the men’s 66 kg class and saw the IJF flag raised instead of his own. He made up for the absence of his national anthem by singing it himself.

The UAE had claimed that such measures were needed to assure the “safety” of the Israeli delegation. IJF President Marius Vizer (ROM) had informed the UAE hosts that “all delegations, including the Israeli delegation, shall be treated absolutely equally in all aspects, without any exception.”

The following June, the IJF suspended the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam tournament in view of its actions against the Israel competitors. In the IJF story:

“They were months of many pressures, of a pulse between the correct and the standard. In silence, without agitating the media or organising propaganda campaigns, it was a low-key but tough diplomatic fight. Judo and its spirit won and until today the world has not offered thanks properly for the Herculean work of Marius Vizer and [IJF Treasurer] Naser Al Tamimi [of the UAE].”

The result was an agreement to abide by the IJF rules and the tournament was reinstated. In October 2018, Israel Sagi Muki – now World Champion – won the 81 kg class. He was presented with his medal by Israeli Sports Minister Miri Regev – specially invited for the event – and both stood while the Israeli flag was raised the its national anthem was played.

More from the IJF:

“That was history, and we are proud of that, especially now. Judo smashed down the walls of misunderstanding and anger and for that we want to congratulate the signatories of the agreement from here. If Donald Trump wishes to appropriate the success and paternity of the gestation of the pact, it seems great to us because, after all, Trump himself organised an international judo tournament in Florida a few years ago, before he was ever a candidate for the White House. Maybe he drew on memories, maybe our values were a source of inspiration. In any case, his mediation has been decisive. But, if you allow us an ephemeral exercise of false modesty, we claim our share in this historic development.”

Is the IJF claiming too much credit? Maybe, maybe not. But Vizer and his federation has stood firm against anti-Israeli activities by other Arab countries and especially by Iran and deserves praise for its actions when so many others have looked the other way.

Athletics ● Just a day before the powerful re-start of the Wanda Diamond League in Monaco, bad news for the sport in one of its strongest markets: reports that the BBC will not renew its six-year deal with U.K. Athletics.

The agreement to televise national meets – not the Diamond League – was apparently worth about £3.0 million a year (~ $3.9 million), but the BBC did not feel that it was getting its money’s worth.

Beyond losing the money, the reports further noted that the federation’s major sponsorships with Muller (a dairy firm) and Nike could be endangered, since much of their exposure was tied to the television exposure offered through the BBC deal.

Cycling ● It was a wild weekend of racing on the UCI World Tour as the Tour de France draws nearer, set to begin on 29 August.

In France, the five-stage Criterium du Dauphine, a closely-watched Tour warm-up event, looked to be the property of Slovenian star Primoz Roglic, one of the favorites for this year’s Tour. But although he led after the fourth stage, he suffered a crash during the stage and limped in, unable to ride in the final segment.

That left France’s Thibaut Pinot in front, but with six riders within a minute going into the hilly, 142.5 km final ride. And while American Sepp Kuss won the stage, Colombia’s Daniel Felipe Martinez was second and Pinot seventh and Martinez won the overall title by 29 seconds over the Frenchman. No word yet on the extent of Roglic’s injuries.

At last Saturday’s 114th running of Il Lombardia from Bergamo to Como, Belgian star Remco Evenpoel crashed and suffered a fractured pelvis and a right lung contusion while riding with the leading group in the descent from the Colma di Sormano – the highest point in the race.

“Evenepoel crashed inside the last 50 kilometre hitting a bridge wall and going over it into a ravine,” reported his team, Deceuninck-Quick Step.

“Remco was conscious at all times as he underwent a series of examinations to reveal the extent of his injury. Unfortunately, the X-rays showed a fractured pelvis and a right lung contusion, which will keep Evenepoel on the sidelines for the upcoming period.”

The 231 km race was won by Jakob Fuglsang (DEN), who sprinted away from the field, with New Zealand’s George Bennett second and Russia’s Aleksandr Vlasov third.

Gymnastics ● USA Gymnastics held a “virtual” National Congress on 8-9 August, opening with an 11-minute presentation by federation chief Li Li Leung that emphasized not only its continuing activity, but also it’s continuing status:

“I want to assuage any doubt about the future of USA Gymnastics, and some rumors that might be swirling lately. We are still here and we don’t plan on going anywhere. To be clear and specific about it, we are still planning to exit bankruptcy later this year, or early next year, and are engaging in mediation to help move that along, and hopefully find mutually-agreeable resolution with the survivors. We have not been de-certified and we are 100% committed to the future of this sport and serving the gymnastics community.”

She praised the resilience of the membership, but also noted that “virtual sanctions” are being explored “so you all can continue the competitive atmosphere in a safe and socially-distanced way.”

Leung also noted that a new leadership at USAG has been built over the last year and a half and that the organization’s mission has been redefined as:

“To build a community and a culture of health, safety and excellence, where athletes can thrive in sport and in life.”

She also previewed a forthcoming “Athlete Bill of Rights,” developed after wide consultations and which will include, in part, the right to:

● Participate in gymnastics
● Train and compete safely
● Have their personal health and wellness prioritized
● Provide input on matters that directly affect them
● Voice opinions on issues that may affect the gymnastics community

Leung noted several training initiatives that will incorporate social-justice elements and then dropped a bombshell on judging and scoring:

“We’re looking at ways implicit bias may impact judging and have identified two researchers from top, prestigious universities tp analyze our competition data. They are in the process of reviewing our data and mapping out the scope and length of the project.”

She also mentioned new commercial partnerships to be announced “which can deliver real value to our members and companies which show the same commitment to athletes that we do” and a commitment to highlight “the power of positive coaching.”

Leung closed with a thank-you to the coaches, judges, families and volunteers who have been largely forgotten while USAG tried to “improve the athlete experience” and fight through its current bankruptcy proceedings.

While USAG has a long way to go in all of the areas Leung outlined, these kinds of activities are important not only in actual reform of the sport in the U.S., but in whether the federation will be de-certified in the years ahead as the U.S. National Governing Body for gymnastics. The U.S. House is now considering S. 2330, which allows the U.S. Congress to vaporize any U.S. NGB via joint resolution, a stance which may run afoul of the International Olympic Committee’s rules on national autonomy of sport.

Swimming ● FINA, the international federation for swimming, announced a six-leg World Cup schedule for 2021 in September (2 meets) and October (4) in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. All six will act as qualifiers for the December 2021 World Short-Course Championships in Abu Dhabi (UAE).

By itself, the announcement was commonplace, but it also places the events in the midst of a possible International Swimming League (ISL) season, which took place in October, November and December of 2019. Although the rhetoric between the two sides has cooled, there are still two ISL-related lawsuits against FINA still moving – glacially – through the discovery process, with trial slated for January of 2022!

It’s an open question as to whether ISL will still exist by then; its Solidarity Program is to begin paying its 300+ contracted swimmers $1,500 monthly beginning 1 September and continuing through 1 July 2021.

Italy’s reigning Olympic 1,500 m Freestyle champ, Gregorio Paltrinieri swam the second-fastest time in the history of the event, winning the Italian national championships race in Rome last Thursday (14th) in 14:33.10.

Only the 14:31.02 world record by Yang Sun (CHN) from the London Games in 2012 is faster. Paltrinieri’s also won the 800 m Free in 7:40.22, the no. 8 mark ever. Said the star:

“It’s too good. I didn’t know how fast I was going, I knew I was going strong because I felt the swim like never before. 14:33 is really strong, I would never have dreamed of it.”

It’s another demonstration of how special a 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo might have been.

World Games 2022 Birmingham ● A unique ruling by the International World Games Association and the Birmingham 2022 organizers will allow the Haudenosaunee Nation to compete in the 2022 World Games if approved by World Lacrosse.

The Haudenosaunee is a group of six nations of pre-Columbian Americans also known as the Iroquois Confederacy, living in southeastern Canada and in the northeast U.S.

Competing as an independent entry, the Haudenosaunee finished third in the 2018 World Lacrosse Championships and would merit entry (the women finished 12th in the 2019 women’s Worlds). World Lacrosse sponsored the petition to the IWGA emphasizing “the position of honor held by the Haudenosaunee Nation, as the originators of the game.”

Naturally, the talk instantly turned to the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, which is targeted by lacrosse for inclusion. According to an editorial on one fan site, “If the creators of the game aren’t there, then the game, as a whole, shouldn’t be there either.” The Haudenosaunee have no National Olympic Committee and while World Lacrosse is a recognized International Federation, it is not close to Olympic recognition on its own.

While not burning now, this may be a log thrown into a future fire at the feet of the Los Angeles organizers for 2028.

At the BuZZer ● A statue of an athlete with his right arm raised in salute outside the Olympic Stadium for the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam (NED) has been removed after an inquiry determined that the salute had fascist connotations.

The statue was erected in honor of Baron Tuyll van Serooskerken, who helped bring the Olympic Games to the city. A story on nltimes.nl explained:

“The Foundation concluded in its investigation that Baron de Coubertin, a founding member of the International Olympic Committee who spearheaded the the launch of the modern Olympic Games, introduced the right armed raised gesture in 1924 at the Paris Games. That was at the same time as the rise of fascism in Italy under Mussolini, the Foundation determined. The Italian fascist movement adopted the gesture as a salute. Later, the Nazis in Germany did the same.

“[Foundation director Ellen] Van Haarem stressed that artist Gerarda Rueb did not have bad intentions when creating the sculpture. ‘You have to keep the two lines well separated from each other. You have the historical fact that the salute dates from a fascist era, and you also have the intention of the maker of the statue to express the so-called sporty greeting from 1924,’ she said to [the Dutch newspaper] Trouw, but added: ‘Once you have established that the salute itself can be traced back directly to fascism, you have to take action.’”

The statue was moved to inside the stadium, where it can be properly explained in the context of its times.

Update: Thanks to reader Waikiki Jim for recognizing a typo in the swimming story; Abu Dhabi will host the 2021 World Short-Course Championships.