Israelis grapple with massive judo tourney, held with skies still mostly closed

Amid criticism over risk posed by Tel Aviv Grand Slam contest, health minister says he is ‘personally’ hurt by footage of federation head shaking contestant’s bare hand

Moshe Ponte, the chair of the Israel Judo Association meets Iranian dissident Saeid Mollaei at Ben Gurion Airport on February 14, 2021 (Screenshot: Channel 12)
Moshe Ponte, the chair of the Israel Judo Association meets Iranian dissident Saeid Mollaei at Ben Gurion Airport on February 14, 2021 (Screenshot: Channel 12)

As some 600 athletes from all over the world arrived in Israel to participate in an international judo tournament this week, the seemingly rule-bending event and lack of adherence to established coronavirus guidelines sparked controversy among health officials as well as among travelers angered by the airport closure for nearly all other cases.

After undergoing COVID-19 tests, competitors who test negative are to remain in closed pods and stay isolated during the entire Tel Aviv Judo Grand Slam event, set to begin Thursday.

Despite the requirements set on the judokas, Moshe Ponte, chairman of the Israel Judo Association greeted one of the competitors, Saeid Mollaei, at Ben Gurion Airport Sunday, shook his hand, and took his mask off for a brief moment, violating coronavirus restrictions.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said he was “personally hurt” by the footage of the handshake, adding that he “very much hopes this will be the last incident,” in an interview with Army Radio on Tuesday.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein during a visit to a COVID-19 vaccination center in northern Israel, February 9, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Iranian dissident Mollaei, who fled his home country after being forced to lose a match on purpose to avoid facing Israel’s Sagi Muki in 2019, is now representing Mongolia. After arriving in the country he said he was “very happy” to be in Israel.

A top doctor on the frontline of the Jewish state’s battle against the coronavirus pandemic on Monday slammed the Tel Aviv event as an unnecessary risk that could bring new mutations of COVID-19 into the country.

“I am really against it. I think it is a mistake,” Dror Mevorach, head of Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital’s coronavirus department, told Radio 103FM.

Prof. Dror Mevorach, head of Hadassah hospital Ein Kerem’s coronavirus department, February 9, 2021. (Channel 13 screenshot)

Mevorach pointed to a recent incident in Australia, where a man quarantined in a Melbourne hotel after arriving from abroad who was unknowingly infected used a nebulizer that spread the virus to the air-conditioning system and so infected others staying at the hotel. As a result, the entire city was placed under a snap lockdown even though the state of Victoria had just exited a closure that successfully eradicated new cases.

“Every tiny mistake like that is dangerous,” Mevorach said.

Earlier on Monday, Culture and Sports Minister Chili Tropper defended the event, saying there was always a need to balance public health with the economy.

The judo contest will provide employment for thousands of Israelis, he noted. He insisted competitors would be placed under tight restrictions to prevent a virus outbreak.

“I think we found the proper balance,” said Tropper.

Blue and White MK Chili Tropper at the Knesset on April 29, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Last week, the chair of the Israel Judo Association, Ponte, outlined the strict terms under which the contest is being held.

Ponte told the Kan public broadcaster that each competitor has to undergo several virus tests before being allowed to participate. Four chartered planes are bringing the competitors to the country from two European collection points, in Paris and Istanbul. The flights are only carrying those who are taking part in the event.

Before being allowed on the plane, each competitor and trainer needs to provide two negative virus tests. In Israel, the arrivals undergo another virus test and are quarantined in hotel rooms, unable to leave until a negative result is confirmed.

Those who are clear of the virus will be permitted to leave their rooms, though competitors will be kept in small pods and isolated from those on other floors of the building, including for meals and transport to the competition venue. Transportation vehicles will be disinfected after each journey.

A training center has been made available at the hotel, but competitors are only able to use it one at a time after booking sessions in advance, and the entire facility will be disinfected between sessions.

As the athletes arrive, thousands of Israelis are not being allowed back into the country due to the strict limitations on flights, imposed last month in an effort to prevent virus infections and new strains arriving from abroad as part of national lockdown.

The empty arrival hall at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on February 3, 2021 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“There’s no way I should be stuck in the US for two weeks, while all sorts of athletes enter the country because they are in judo,” one Israeli man told Channel 12.

“Because judo is an Olympic sport, they care about them, while I stand here in the cold and attempt to get on a flight,” he added.

Ben Gurion Airport has been almost entirely shuttered since January 25, except for cargo planes and emergency aircraft.

Departing flights during this time have been limited to those traveling for medical treatment, essential work, legal proceedings, a funeral of a relative, noncitizens leaving the country, and those traveling from one residence to another. Those needing to travel for other circumstances have been allowed to submit their case to an interministerial committee for review.

On Sunday, the government decided to relax the closure to allow up to 2,000 people a day to arrive in the country.

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