Every four years, spectators around the world eagerly tune in to watch dedicated athletes compete and demonstrate their talent at the Olympics. The games this year, hosted in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, boasted athletes from a total of 206 nations. The games ended successfully for many countries, including the United States, who took home 46 gold medals. Despite the superior athletic talent portrayed at the games, trivial scandals made many headlines and emphasized how the Olympics often times diverge from athletics and crosses into addressing sociopolitical issues.
One major conflict that emerged during the Olympics was an incident between an Egyptian and Israeli judo fighter. On August 12, Israeli fighter Or Sasson defeated Egyptian Islam El Shehaby in the first round of the fight. Afterwards, Shebay refused to shake Or Sasson’s hand. The small gesture was considered a serious issue as shaking hands after a match is an essential part of Judo protocol. The conflict quickly took on a greater significance because of the historical tensions between the two countries.
Before the competition, nationalist groups in Egypt expressed anger with the match and implored El Shehaby to retract his participation. However, the head of the Egyptian Olympic Committee, Hisham Hatab, stated, "Islam will play the match without troubles….the delegation doesn't allow mixing politics with sports.”
Hatab’s response serves to emphasize the exact issue at hand: the blurring of boundaries between politics and sports in the Olympics. Not only are athletes faced with executing their sport flawlessly, but they are also charged with the daunting prospect of representing their homeland. As a result, they often times drag their country’s reputation or current political situation into the game.
El Shehaby’s actions after the fight are not to be defended; refusing to shake hands is ultimately a sign of poor sportsmanship. But viewers must take into consideration the pressure El Shehaby was under from people back in Egypt. In the eyes of some of his fellow Egyptians, his refusal to shake hands was entirely justified.
Senior Caroline Cosovich commented on her observations of the athletes at the Olympics, “Some athletes at the Olympics are very protected and ordinary, but others are public creatures that the countries are almost exploiting as celebrities. It's a lot of pressure to have that caliber of athleticism, professionalism, and such present ability.”
However, not all social interactions at the Olympics had negative political associations. For example, on August 9 after a round of competition, North Korean gymnast Hong Un Jong posed for a photo with South Korean gymnast Lee Eun-Ju. The innocent picture was blown up across media as people noticed the peaceful interaction between the two rival countries. Many viewers expressed their support of the picture and how it captured the true values of the Olympics, which is to bring together athletes from across the world to compete peacefully. Usually, South Korea demands that its citizens acquire the government’s approval in order to have any sort of communication with North Koreans. However, for events that require citizens to travel and interact with other countries, such as the Olympics, the rule is lifted. Therefore, the Olympics gives countries the opportunity to come together and bridge any gaps that may occur between them. However, media coverage of the games can often times emphasize the political and social gaps between the competitors instead of focusing on the competition itself.
Cosovich stated, “The media was so indulgent in every specific detail that it was confusing viewers and causing more rumors to be spread...Too much coverage at the Olympics was about controversial opinions of athletes and their countries instead of their accomplishments.”
Whether cultural interactions in the Olympics reflect positive or negative political interactions in the world, it is important to remember that the Olympics is simply a sports competition. Instead of expecting athletes to embody an entire nation, we should be focusing on how they represent their particular sport.