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Shachar Sagiv becomes first Israeli athlete to compete in Saudi Arabia

Sagiv participates in Neom triathlon on the same day that an Israeli tennis player faces a Saudi opponent at a tournament in Bahrain

Israeli triathlete Shachar Sagiv (screenshot: YouTube; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Israeli triathlete Shachar Sagiv (screenshot: YouTube; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Triathlete Shachar Sagiv has become the first Israeli athlete to compete in Saudi Arabia, the Israeli Olympic Committee said Sunday, in the latest sign of growing informal ties between the former enemies.

Sagiv competed in Neom on the same day that an Israeli tennis player faced off against a Saudi opponent in Bahrain, as the two countries without any diplomatic ties appear comfortable meeting on the field.

Olympic committee head Yael Arad called Sagiv’s presence at the Saudi NEOM leg of the Super League Triathlon on Saturday “a very significant breakthrough.”

“In the past year we’ve seen many Arab states come to terms with the fact that hosting an international tournament means hosting Israelis,” she said in a statement. “This is a growing trend and the true force in normalization between nations, and especially people.”

A Saudi official did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sagiv, 28, was eliminated from the race after falling in a bike ride, failing to meet his goal of improving his rank, his coach Lior Cohen wrote on Facebook. “Shachar came to make professional history and not only diplomatic history,” Cohen added.

Sagiv and his brother Ran broke Israeli records in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by ranking 20th and 35th in the triathlon competition, respectively. They were only the second and third Israeli triathletes ever to participate in the Olympic Games.

In November, Shachar Sagiv is set to compete in the Bermuda World Triathlon Championship Series as part of his effort to qualify for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

Sagiv’s participation comes amid speculation about future bilateral ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, after the Gulf kingdom opened its airspace to Israeli planes in July and recently allowed an Israeli businessman into its borders.

Saudi Arabia does not recognize Israel and did not join the 2020 US-brokered Abraham Accords that saw the Jewish state establish ties with two of the kingdom’s neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Riyadh has repeatedly said it would stick to the decades-old Arab League position of not establishing official ties with Israel until the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved.

Brothers and Israeli Olympic triathletes Ran (right) and Shachar Sagiv, at the start of the triathlon at the Tokyo Games on July 26, 2021. (Screenshot)

Meanwhile, in another sports-related drama involving both countries, Saudi Arabia’s rising tennis star Yara Al-Hogbani, 18, defeated Israel’s Isabell Bilaus, 14, on Saturday in the semifinals of the J5 Isa Town Tournament currently taking place in Bahrain.

Al-Hogbani is the first professional Saudi female tennis player, according to a report by Arab News.

She will now need to beat Tamara Ermakova of Russia in the tournament’s final round later on Sunday.

Al-Hogbani and Ermakova previously met during last year’s J4 Isa Town Tournament. Al-Hogbani beat Ermakova 6-1, 6-0 at the time.

Al-Hogbani was born in Ohio in the US and now lives in Riyadh. She has played tennis since she was 4 and turned professional at the age of 14.

“I grew up in a very big family, with six brothers and an older sister. We were a very active family that loved biking, swimming, tennis and soccer,” she told Arab News earlier this month, adding that her passion for tennis started with her brothers, both of whom play tennis competitively.

At the Tokyo Olympics last year, Saudi judoka Tahani Alqahtani defied expectations by showing up to compete against Israel’s Raz Hershko after other athletes at the games had forfeited rather than compete against Israel.

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