Facing possible IOC snub, Malaysia needs ‘pragmatic approach’ in dealing with Israeli athletes

The recent warning by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is clear.

It looks like the Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) is in for a tough fight to ensure Malaysia does not lose out in hosting major events, following the government’s refusal to allow Israeli athletes into the country.

OCM president Tan Sri Norza Zakaria understands the gravity of the matter. But it seems that decision-makers are willing to disregard sports, in support of the Palestinian cause.

Malaysia does not have diplomatic ties with Israel.

The tense situation was escalated to the international body after the Men’s World Team Squash Championship, which was supposed to be held in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month, was cancelled after Malaysia refused to grant Israeli athletes visas.

According to a letter obtained by the Jerusalem Post, Serbia too, had been warned after its government prevented Kosovo from competing at the World Boxing Championships in Belgrade.

The news article added that IOC would work with OCM and the Serbian Olympic Committee to reach a solution with their governments, “failing which, such countries would, unfortunately, exclude themselves from the right to host international sports events until all the necessary assurances can be obtained and respected”.

“We have been in close contact with the IOC with regard to the cancellation of the squash meet,” said Norza this afternoon.

“The only way forward is for the Youth and Sports Ministry to put up a Cabinet paper, and the government has to make a decision. They should know how serious this is.”

Malaysian ministers, namely Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, and Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Faizal Azumu, however, had made their stand – and that of the government – clear, not too long ago.

Saifuddin had said that the country would not compromise on its support of the Palestinian struggle, while Ahmad Faizal had been quoted as saying that he would be the first to oppose Israeli athletes from entering Malaysia.

When reminded of the ministers’ stand, Norza added: “The situation did not escalate to a level where there is a possibility of Malaysia being cut by the IOC. It has now.”

Malaysia hogged the spotlight in 2019 when the government banned Israeli para-athletes from competing in the 9th World Para Swimming Championships in Kuching, Sarawak. The move resulted in the International Paralympic Committee stripping Malaysia of the right to host the event – which would have been the largest sporting event held in Malaysia just before the Covid-19 pandemic kicked in.

Saifuddin, who was also the foreign minister then, had told Twentytwo13 on Jan 14 that: “The current status is straightforward; we will not host (events) if we know there is an Israeli team, or organisation, involved.”

Indonesia also does not enjoy formal ties with Israel despite reports suggesting that it, Malaysia and Israel traded with one another.

The Abraham Accords, created during United States President Donald Trump’s time in office to normalise relations between Israel and Muslim nations, saw the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain as among its first signatories. Several other nations in the region later followed suit.

The Joe Biden administration is eager to see the Abraham Accords go beyond the Middle East, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during his visit to Jakarta earlier this month, raised the possibility of Indonesia normalising relations with Israel.

However, it has been observed that there was not much incentive for Malaysia and Indonesia to change their minds regarding Israel – even when it came to sports.

“They (the Malaysian government) have to take note of this situation. There has to be some sort of resolution to this,” added Norza.

“From OCM’s point of view, we are requesting for a pragmatic approach to (solving) this.”

Norza, while sympathising with the Palestinian cause, suggested that the government could allow Israeli athletes into the country based on merit.

“We should take a non-political decision. If we don’t deliberate on this properly, Malaysia will lose out,” he added.