Too often, politics and sports mix. It’s unfortunate, but they always have and likely always will.
But in a world where there’s rarely an absolute right and an absolute wrong — and these days, those almost always involve body counts — tennis has usually fallen on the correct side.
The sport made the right decision again Monday, when the Tennis Channel chose to not televise the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships because the United Arab Emirates’ refused to grant an entry visa to Israeli player Shahar Pe’er.
“This is an easy decision to come by, based on what is right and wrong,” Ken Solomon, the chairman and chief executive of the network, said Monday. “Sports are about merit, absent of background, class, race, creed, color or religion. They are simply about talent. ... If the state of Israel were barring a citizen of an Arab nation, we would have made the same decision.”
Tennis has quite the track record when it comes to civil rights.
In the 1960s and 1970s, it was tennis players — especially Ashe — who lobbied for the International Olympic Committee and Davis Cup to bar South Africa’s apartheid from competition.
Now, the World Tennis Association is considering dropping Dubai from its schedule altogether because of their actions this week.
One year ago during this tournament, WTA Tour chairman Larry Scott insisted he “made it clear to the (UAE) authorities, the representatives of the government” that if Pe’er qualified, she must be allowed to play.
“They had a year to work on it and solve it,” Scott said Monday. “We’ve spent time through the year discussing it. We were given assurances that it had gone to the highest levels of government. I was optimistic they would solve it.”
Obviously, they didn’t, despite the fact that Pe’er qualified.
Coming into this week, Pe’er was ranked 48th in the world and on a roll. At the Pattaya Women’s Open last week, she finished fourth. Venus Williams said Pe’er could have won this tournament.
But alas, Pe’er won’t be there.
Let’s be clear: Pe’er isn’t the first Israeli athlete to suffer from the residual effects of politics; it’s just the first time someone has done something about it.
At the Beijing Olympics, Iranian swimmer Mohammad Alirezaei withdrew from a 100-meter breaststroke rather than race Tom Beeri of Israel. The country received no penalty — not even a warning.
At the Athens Olympics four years earlier, the reigning world judo champion, Iraniani Arash Miresmaeili, also withdrew from the games rather than face an Israeli opponent. Rather than being penalized, the Iranian government rewarded him with a $120,000 bonus.
In the 2003 Special Olympics, a Saudi Arabian soccer team refused to play Israel at the Special Olympics in Ireland. Instead of penalizing Saudi Arabia, the tournament directors moved Israel into another “ability group” to accommodate the Saudis.
Finally, last month, an Israeli basketball team had to flee the stadium before a European Cup game in Turkey, when a raucous crowd, some waving Palestinian flags and chanting “God is great!” tried to rush the court. The Israeli team hid in the locker rooms and escaped the country at 3 a.m. under heavy security. Turkey was declared the winner.
Obviously, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is too complex to discuss in this column, and frankly, it’s over my head.
But repeatedly, Israeli athletes have suffered for no other reason than being Israeli. In a meritocracy like sports, that seems wrong to me.
I’m glad the Tennis Channel took a stand, even though it cost them millions in advertisements. Someone had to set a precedent. Hopefully, the WTA will now drop Dubai from their schedule.
What’s right is right. Tennis has always subscribed to that theory. They should continue championing that notion, regardless of how much money the UAE government throws at them.