Rio Olympics: Or Sasson Wins Israel’s Second Bronze, Egyptian Refuses to Shake Hands

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Israelis spent Shabbat celebrating another Olympic medal after Or Sasson won the nation’s second bronze medal in a judo match in Rio de Janeiro on Friday.

Sasson competed in the 100kg+ judo contest. He lost in the semi finals to London Olympic winner Teddy Riner of France who went on to win the gold medal on Friday. The French judoka is undefeated in six years. Sasson, who turns 26 on August 18, is a two-time European silver medalist.

The Israeli’s appearance, however, was tainted with anti-Semitic overtones during his first-round victory over Egyptian Islam El-Shahaby. After Sasson was declared the winner, the 34-year-old Egyptian stood with his back toward Sasson. When Sasson extended his hand, El-Shehaby backed away, shaking his head.

The referee called El-Shehaby back and obliged to him to bow. The Egyptian gave a quick nod, but was loudly booed as he exited. Bowing is a sign of respect in the Japanese martial art and is considered part of the etiquette of the game.

The International Olympic Committee set up a disciplinary commission to look into the incident.

“We believe the Olympic movement should be about building bridges, not erecting walls,” said IOC spokesman Mark Adams. “There’s absolutely no excuse for it.”

In light of other incidents – including one during this Olympics – where Muslim athletes forfeit matches rather than face an Israeli, some saw this from a positive perspective. The fact that the fight even took place between those two athletes was already a major sign of progress, the International Judo Federation spokesman Nicolas Messner said.

El-Shehaby, a devout Muslim, was pressured by Islamic media in Egypt to forfeit his first-round bout against Sasson.

“My son watch out, don’t be fooled, or fool yourself thinking you will play with the Israeli athlete to defeat him and make Egypt happy,” Mataz Matar, a TV host in Al-Sharq, warned the judoka. “Egypt will cry; Egypt will be sad and you will be seen as a traitor and a normalizer in the eyes of your people.”

Egyptian IOC president Hisham Hatab insisted this was not official national policy and blamed media pressure for El-Shehaby’s reaction.

“The fighter hesitated between competing or withdrawing, that’s why he was nervous,” Hatab told AFP. “Egyptian media pressure was huge on him before the bout. People were waiting to see if would fight or not. We tried to relax him but we couldn’t.”

“Not shaking hands was his personal decision,” he said.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Sasson for his victory and also his sportsmanship.

“You have achieved an extraordinary accomplishment,” he said “We saw how you lived out your dream. You’ve shown us that if you want something bad enough, you can achieve your dreams.”

“Every boy and girl in Israel, and in the world, who watched you saw not just a great athlete, but a man of values,” the prime minister said. “You showed the true face of Israel: the beautiful side and one that takes pride as a country that seeks peace.”

Sasson described the medal as a lifelong quest and a huge victory for him.

He said his coaches had warned him that El-Shehaby might refuse to shake his hand, but he decided to keep the focus on his own accomplishments.

“I knew he would do it, so it wasn’t a surprise for me,” he said. “Now I’m thinking only about my medal.”

Sasson described this as a huge victory for himself that summed up years of training and hard work.

On Tuesday, fellow Israeli judoka Yarden Gerbi took a bronze medal in the women’s under-63 kg in Rio, becoming the first Israeli athlete to win a medal at the 2016 games, and the first Israeli Olympic medalist since windsurfer Shahar Tzuberi took home the bronze in the 2008 games in Beijing.