Israel’s Olympic bronze medalist Or Sasson said that tensions ran high between the Egyptian and Israeli judo delegations even before the now-infamous rejected handshake with Sasson’s Egyptian competitor Islam El Shehaby.
The Egyptian judoka raised a storm in Rio by refusing to shake hands with Sasson, and at first refusing to bow, after losing the match on Friday. He was reprimanded by an Olympic disciplinary commission.
In Sasson’s memory of the past week, the infamous handshake incident was merely the tip of an iceberg of antagonism, which awakened in the Jerusalem native associations with terror attacks in Israel.
“Before the match, I heard the Egyptian judoka and his coach saying to each other, ‘Allahu akbar.’ It reminded me of what happens in Israel before terror attacks, with those screams,” he told Yedioth Ahronoth in an interview published Wednesday.
The phrase “Allahu akbar,” which translates into “God is greatest,” is uttered by many millions of Muslims five times a day throughout the world during prayers. Muslims also regularly proclaim it as an affirmation of faith and determination in less formal situations.
According to Sasson, when the lottery pitted him against El Shehaby, “I got social media messages telling me to ‘beat up the Muslim.’ But I understood that I came to compete against a sportsman, and it doesn’t matter if he’s Egyptian.”
With the Jewish-Muslim rivalry already taking place online, tensions only got worse in Rio.
“He never spoke to me. He always had an antagonistic attitude. He would look at us like he wanted to murder us. The Egyptians didn’t want to take the elevator with us,” Sasson said.
To combat that perceived hostility, his coach instructed him to seek out the handshake after beating his rival, Sasson told the Israeli daily.
“After the match I went looking for his hand. My coach Oren Smadja” — himself an Olympic judo bronze medalist from the 1992 Barcelona Games — “asked me to do it.”
“I never developed any hatred toward him,” Sasson said of El Shehaby.
Sasson, a two-time European silver medalist who turns 26 on August 18, brushed off the unpleasant encounter with Shehaby in the first round of the tournament and went on to win two more fights, claiming a place in the semifinals against France’s legendary Teddy Riner, who later retained his gold medal. After narrowly losing to Riner, Sasson beat Cuba’s Alex Mendoza to earn a bronze.
Sasson and fellow Israeli judoka medalist Yarden Gerbi returned to Israel on Monday to a heroes’ welcome at Ben Gurion Airport, where nearly 1,000 fans turned up.
The full interview with Sasson, set to be published in Yedioth’s Friday edition, went beyond the handshake.
Sasson decried the high taxes Israel places on Olympic winnings: “I heard that the state plans to take from us half the amount we won. It’s frustrating to win and have the state take half.” As an Olympic judoka in training, “I make NIS 6,000 per month,” or $1,585, amounting to an annual salary of $19,000.
Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev announced Wednesday that she would raise Israel’s own prize to its Olympic medalists: NIS 300,000 ($79,000) to bronze winners, NIS 400,000 ($106,000) for silver and NIS 500,000 ($132,000) for gold.
In the wake of the handshake refusal, which was deemed by Olympic officials to have been contrary to the Olympic spirit and the ethics of judo, an International Olympic Committee spokesman said Monday that the Egyptian Olympic Committee “strongly condemned the actions of Mr Islam El Shehaby and has sent him home.”
The following day, Egypt’s judo federation denied that El Shehaby was sent home for refusing to shake Sasson’s hand. Egyptian judo federation president Sameh Moubasher told AFP that El Shehaby “was not sent home. He returned with his colleagues. The whole judo team returned yesterday at dawn.”
The Egyptian El Youm el Sabah news site on Sunday quoted Shehaby as saying he did not initially plan to ignore Sasson’s outstretched hand, but that it was rather a spur-of-the-moment decision.
Shehaby claimed he didn’t break any rules by not shaking Sasson’s hand moments after the Israeli threw him to the mat, beating him.
“The Israeli athlete is not my friend whom I must greet,” he said, adding, “I worked really hard to get into this Olympics, and in the end it turned into something political.”