Beach volleyball duo Sean Faiga and Ariel Hilman racked up two historic achievements on Monday, becoming the first Israeli team in the sport to vie for an Olympic spot, and the first volleyball players to participate in a competition in an Arab country.
The pair won their first qualifying match against a Japanese team, beating their opponents by two sets to zero at the FIVB Qatar Open, which took place in the capital, Doha.
Faiga and Hilman are the first Israeli volleyball players to compete in an Arab country. Israel Volleyball Association CEO Yaniv Newman said the team members are being treated warmly by their hosts and have strict protection from local forces and Israeli security guards, Israel Radio reported.
Israeli athletes usually encounter difficulties when competing in Arab countries. Nevertheless, for Israelis to compete in international sports that have tournament circuits across the globe like tennis, judo, swimming and now beach volleyball, they cannot entirely avoid competitions in these states.
The Israeli athletes arrived in Doha on Sunday after a tenuous wait to know if they would be granted visas to the Gulf country, which has no formal diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.
According to the IVA’s head of beach volleyball, Elad Simon, the Israelis worked for two months to get the Qataris to grant them a visa. The visa request was finally granted last Friday and the Israeli delegation flew out to the Gulf state on Saturday.
Not wanting to stir up trouble for the host country, the Israel Volleyball Association kept the story quiet until the two athletes, accompanied by Newman and national team coach Shaked Haimi, arrived in Doha.
The challenge of physically getting to the tournament was only the beginning for Faiga and Hilman. They have to win two qualifying matches just to make the main tournament in Doha, which runs through to Friday.
Their performance in Qatar will also determine their rankings as they try to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Simon said that while the political story was intriguing, the Israeli athletes are focused on achieving glory in their sport rather than in diplomatic circles.
“Our players want to compete in any tournament they can enter,” Simon said. “We are into sports, not politics.”
There has been some confusion as to whether the Israeli flag would be raised in the Gulf country during the tournament, a quandary that has even spread through the Arab press.
Speaking before the match, Simon said he was not aware of any plans to have an Israeli flag hoisted during the tourney.
“If they raise our flag, that’s great. But we are there to win the tournament,” he said.
Qatar is supposed to host the World Cup in 2022. So far, the announcement has brought the tiny but very rich country massive criticism over foreign workers’ rights and possible corruption charges in attaining the honor of hosting the biggest international soccer tournament.
Dan Shiray, the IVA communications director, speculated the Qataris did not want to risk more bad press by refusing visas to the Israeli delegation.
“They are supposed to host the World Cup in 2022, and if it gets in the news that Israelis weren’t granted visas, it’s very bad publicity,” he said.
The beach volleyball duo aren’t be the first Israelis to compete in Qatar.
Tennis star Shahar Peer was the first athlete from the Jewish state to compete there back in 2008 and then again in 2012.
In 2013, Qatar authorities substituted a totally white flag in place of the Israeli flag during the official broadcasts of the swimming championship, and displayed a mistaken abbreviation of the country in several of the cup’s races.
The next year, however, following an outcry, the Israeli flag and the Jewish state’s name were displayed at the Qatari tournament and in its public broadcasts.
JTA contributed to this report