In sports breakthrough, Moroccan national wrestling team to compete in Israel

Morocco delegation set to attend Beersheba tournament commemorating 1972 Munich Olympics massacre

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Wrestlers competing at the Maccabiah Games in Beersheba, July 2022. (Courtesy/Larry Slater)
Wrestlers competing at the Maccabiah Games in Beersheba, July 2022. (Courtesy/Larry Slater)

The Moroccan national wrestling team is set to compete in Israel this month, as Israel’s warming ties with some Arab nations continue to pay off in the sports world.

The tournament, set to take place in the southern city of Beersheba on August 25-26, commemorates the 50th anniversary of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Organizers have named the tournament The Slavin, Halfen, Weinberg & Gottfreund Memorial, after the Israeli wrestlers who were killed by Palestinian terrorists in Munich.

Twelve members of Israel’s Olympic delegation were killed by the Black September terror group during the massacre. Mark Slavin and Eliezer Halfen were set to compete in wrestling at the Games, Moshe Weinberg was a coach, and Yossef Gottfreund was a referee. Weinberg’s nephew, Aviram Shmuely, a former Israeli national team member, helped organize the upcoming Beersheba tournament and will referee some of the matches.

American Olympic gold medalist brothers Ben Peterson and John Peterson will lead a training camp during the event. Both of the Petersons competed in the Munich Olympics.

Morocco’s team will include at least eight athletes and 10 other delegation members, including high-ranking officials from United World Wrestling, the international body governing amateur wrestling, the Israeli organizers said.

The Moroccan wrestling federation said in a letter it had accepted the Israeli team’s invitation to the tournament “under the guidance of his majesty the King Mohamed VI.” The Moroccan government is bankrolling the team’s participation.

“May sports always serve world peace, and friendliness between nations,” said the letter to the Israel Wrestling Federation from Moroccan official Fouad Meskout, the president of United World Wrestling’s African Council.

The unofficial title of the competition is “Wrestle for Peace.”

The Moroccan team and the Israel Wrestling Federation will also sign an agreement on continued training and competition together, Israeli organizers said.

In addition to Morocco and Israel, athletes from the US, Germany, Switzerland, Greece and Tajikistan will compete in the Beersheba tournament. United World Wrestling has sanctioned the event as an official senior level competition in men’s Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling, the two international styles that take place in the Olympics.

In addition to building ties with Morocco, Israel’s wrestling federation sees the tournament as a potential boon for the sport in Israel.

“This is really a kick-off event to reinvigorate the Israel Wrestling Federation,” said organizer Jake Kornblatt. “The federation needs support. Most of the coaches are trying to act as administrators and have a full-time job at the same time.”

“It matters because it helps the community and there’s potential here,” he said. The organizers are working to get Israeli officials and representatives from the Moroccan embassy to attend the competition.

Wrestling, one of the most ancient and grueling of sports, is neither widespread nor closely followed in Israel, unlike judo, which is similar to wrestling and one of Israel’s strongest sports on the world stage. Most Israeli wrestlers come from communities of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, where the sport is popular, such as Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. Most training takes place at clubs at less central cities including Bat Yam, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheba.

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“The kids are tough and the coaches have a strong mentality but the country as a whole does not really support athletics. It doesn’t have infrastructure in place to support the periphery as much as it needs to,” Kornblatt said.

“It’s a vehicle that can help mentor and support kids and these communities that are wrestling, it’s their thing,” he said. “This is one of the things that defines their culture and it’s a way to uplift these communities.”

Several of the Israeli wrestlers have made inroads in international competition, including Yuri Kalashnikov, Daniel Popov and Melkamu Fetene.

A leading American wrestling organization, Beat the Streets, is sending a group of athletes to the Beersheba tournament to compete and participate in a training camp. As well as the Peterson brothers, the camp will be run by the first American Greco-Roman world champion, Mike Houck. Beat the Streets runs a network of clubs in US cities that use the sport to support youth in disadvantaged communities, in a possible model for Israel. Kornblatt, a wrestler originally from the US, helped found Beat the Streets in Cleveland and has held talks about setting up a branch in Israel.

The Beersheba tournament is the latest upshot of the Abraham Accords, which normalized ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco in 2020. The agreements have borne fruit in trade, diplomacy, tourism and security.

Ties have also warmed in the sports world, after Israel was long excluded from regional competitions and discriminated against in the international arena. United World Wrestling has punished Iran’s wrestling team for refusing to compete against Israelis, and an Egyptian wrestler once bit her Israeli opponent. In judo, athletes from Iran and Arab countries have repeatedly snubbed Israeli competitors, including in the Tokyo Olympics.

In January, Israeli basketball player Mohamed Abu Arisha signed a contract to play for a Moroccan professional team, a first in the country. The Moroccan women’s basketball team hosted their Israeli counterparts for the first time in June. The UAE has hosted Israeli soccer, rugby and hockey players since the accords were signed, and a Dubai soccer team has signed an Israeli athlete. A UAE youth soccer team played in a tournament in Israel last year.

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