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The Political Power of Sports

Had an Israeli businessman or tourist been turned away upon arrival at Dubai International Airport, it is unlikely that anyone beyond the Israeli Foreign Ministry would have heard about it.  After all, most Arab countries have prohibited Israelis – or even non-Israelis with an Israeli stamp on their passports – from entering for so long that we have become desensitized to it.

Yet when Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer – currently ranked 45th in the world – was denied a U.A.E. visa and thereby excluded from the women’s bracket of the Dubai Tennis Championships this past weekend, it became a source of virtually unanimous international outrage.

For once, Jewish leaders weren’t the only voices speaking out against anti-Israeli exclusion.  Indeed, the Wall Street Journal withdrew its sponsorship; the Women’s Tennis Association, which initially considered canceling the event until Peer rejected the idea, announced that it might eliminate the event from next year’s schedule; and the Tennis Channel refused to broadcast the week-long tournament in protest.  The response was so overwhelming that the U.A.E. was immediately on the defensive: the tournament’s organizers first claimed – very dubiously – that they were merely trying to protect Peer from anti-Israel protesters, but later vowed that Andy Ram, another Israeli player, would be granted a visa for next week’s men’s bracket. That has since happened.

Such is the power of sports.  Whereas blatant prejudice consistently erects barriers in the way of human interaction, sport remains the one venue in which the right of objectively qualified individuals to participate is upheld as a matter of principle.  Historically, sports’ non-discriminatory disposition has been trailblazing: as ESPN’s Peter Gammons noted in his brilliant 2005 Baseball Hall-of-Fame speech, it is no coincidence that baseball’s color barrier was broken seven years before Brown v. the Board of Education.

In turn, if Shahar Peer’s exclusion from the Dubai Tennis Championships has served any greater purpose, it is to call attention to decades of Arab discrimination against Israelis and – within one fateful week – reverse it on a most public stage.  When an Israeli man takes the court in Dubai next week, it will represent a major event in the social history of the Middle East.  Indeed, it will mark the climax of a story that only sports – given its commitment to unbiased standards for participation – could have made possible.

For true sports fans, it will be a proud moment.


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