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Israeli judoka sings national anthem on podium, despite UAE tournament officials’ refusal to play it

Israel’s Tal Flicker, in white uniform emblazoned with the initials of the International Judo Federation, beat Azerbaijan’s Nijat Shikhalizada for the gold medal in the under-66-kilogram division. (AFP/HO/IJF/Getty Images)

Israel’s Tal Flicker quietly sang his country’s national anthem as he was awarded the gold medal at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam judo tournament Thursday. The music playing from the arena’s loudspeakers, however, as well as the flag rising above his head, had nothing to do with Israel. Instead of “Hatikvah” and the Israeli flag, organizers of the tournament in the United Arab Emirates played the International Judo Federation anthem and raised the IJF flag.

“The anthem that they played of the world federation was just background noise,” Flicker, who competed in the under-66-kilogram division, said in video posted to YouTube. “I was singing ‘Hatikvah’ from my heart.”

“I’m proud of my country,” he added. “The whole world knows that we’re from Israel, knows who we represent. The fact that they hid our flag, it’s just a patch on our flag.”

That UAE organizers refused to recognize Israel during the tournament — even making Israeli athletes wear generic IJF-branded uniforms — is not a surprise. Although the IJF urged organizers to treat athletes from all countries “absolutely equally in all aspects, without any exception,” according to a letter obtained by the Associated Press that the IJF sent to the UAE Judo Federation, the UAE contingent refused to comply. Organizers reportedly cited concerns for the Israeli athletes’ safety as reason for making them compete as neutral.

Israel’s official Twitter account apparently did not buy the explanation, declaring “SHAME on the organizers” for “hiding winner’s flag.”

Athletes such as Flicker — as well as Gili Cohen, who won bronze in the women’s under-52-kilogram division — knew they’d be unable to wear their national uniforms before they traveled to the UAE, which like several other Middle Eastern countries has no diplomatic ties with Israel. Israeli athletes competed under the same stipulations two years ago when the tournament also was held in Abu Dhabi.

Flicker said, despite the political problems between the countries, he never thought twice about competing.

“Everyone in the world knows where we are from and what country we represent,” he wrote on his Facebook page this week ahead of the tournament. “We’ll do anything to get to Abu Dhabi and end up on the podium.”

International politics seeping into sporting events is hardly new, especially when it comes to Israeli athletes traveling to or competing against other Middle Eastern or North African countries and athletes. Last summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, for example, saw Egyptian judo athlete Islam El Shehaby booted from the Games after he refused to shake the hand of Israel’s Or Sasson, who went on to win bronze. There were also rumors that a Saudi Arabian judoka withdrew from the competition to avoid fighting Cohen at the Games. Saudi Arabian officials later said Joud Fahmy retired from the competition because of a hand injury.

Twelve Israeli athletes are expected to participate in the three-day judo event in Abu Dhabi that ends Saturday.  Included among them is Sasson, who will compete in the men’s over-100-kilogram division. El Shehaby is not in the tournament.

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