The 2020 International Esports Federation (IESF) World Championships in November is expected to attract approximately 60 countries, making it the largest ever. But, Malaysia are not expected to be one of the participants.
The IESF World Championships, which is the only esports event featuring national teams is taking place in the Israeli city of Eilat. With Malaysia having no diplomatic relation with Israel, chances of a Malaysian team taking part is virtually none.
The IESF will announce the games to be featured at the championships on March 1. Last year’s IESF World Championship was held in Seoul, where the games competed were Dota 2, Tekken 7 and eFootball Pro Evolution Soccer 2020. Japan emerged as the overall winners.
Top competitors from Iran and Indonesia have already expressed disappointment that they would be unable to participate because of the government policies. Israel on its part has already said that it will allow any e-sport competitors to enter regardless of nationality.
Based in South Korea, the IESF spans dozens of nations across the world and has become one of the world’s largest e-sport organizations although another body was recently formed in Singapore.
With the fluid development of sports in recent years, continued boycott of Israeli sports is getting much harder to implement.
Back in 1958, Israel won the World Cup qualifying stage for Asia-Africa without playing a single game. The situation forced FIFA to schedule a playoff between Israel and Wales to ensure the Israeli team did not qualify without playing at least one game.
Similar situations are unlikely to happen again, not only because Israel now plays in the European zone, but because football is just too big a sport to boycott.
One reason is that Israeli sport is slowly growing and there are a number of athletes already at the international level. The other is with the middle-east Muslim countries going on a drive to host major sporting events, the inclusion of Israeli athletes is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid.
Although Israel was expelled from the Asian Games in 1978 due to the pressure from the Arab nations, it is still very much in the Olympic family. Israeli judokas won two bronze medals at Rio Olympics and even won a sailing gold at the 2004 Athens Games.
Indonesia has indicated that it wants to bid to host the 2032 Olympics and it would be interesting to see how they are going to convince the IOC of their ability to include Israel without security issues in the predominantly Islamic country.
Back in 2015, Indonesia initially denied Israeli badminton player Misha Zilberman entry to play at the World Championships. He did make it to Jakarta at the eleventh hour but was bombarded with threats on social media before and during his short stay in Jakarta.
The Olympic charter advocates absolute equality between athletes and nationalities regardless of religion, race or sex.
Malaysia were stripped of the right to host the World Para Swimming Championships after the government refused to allow Israeli swimmers into the country last year. But, back in 1997 an Israeli cricket team was allowed to play at the ICC Trophy in Kuala Lumpur.
The Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement have been trying for many years to get Israel out major sports organisations as well as events worldwide without much success. Their attempt to stop Israel from participating at the last two Olympics in London and Rio also failed to get attention.
The 2009 Davis Cup qualifier between Israel and Sweden was almost cancelled because of anti-Israel riots and also because the city council did not want the Israeli team competing in the city. The match was eventually played behind closed doors with the host city Malmo fined and banned for five years from hosting another tournament.
With the increasing profile of sports in helping some regimes as a sportswashing tool, such restrictions are slowly being diluted.
Add top this the International Olympic Committee (IOC) policy of stripping countries of hosting rights if they do not honor their obligations about equal access and rights for all, previously rigid countries are being forced to rethink their stand.
Israeli national symbols were not allowed until the 2018 Grand Slam judo tournament in Abu Dhabi following the International Judo Federation’s (IJF) threat to strip the Emirates of the hosting rights if this policy was not scrapped.
In March last year, the Israeli national anthem was played in Abu Dhabi after Israeli gymnast Alexander Shatilov won the gold medal for the floor exercise during the 2019 FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Cup series.
Qatar also allows Israeli athletes to play in the country although a large cross section of the Muslim population still distance themselves from Israeli participation in the nation’s many international competitions.
Israeli participation in an international school handball tournament in Qatar two years ago started a media storm from Muslim parents wanting to pull their children from the competition.
Political and religious enemies competing peacefully in the sporting arena may still seem to be a work in progress. But the once formidable barriers are slowly crumbling, sometimes with the athletes themselves taking a stance.
While there were worldwide reports of Iranian athletes being forced to withdraw from sporting events against Israeli opponents, the athletes themselves are also revolting against such directives. Judoka Saeid Mollaei’s revelation on how he was threatened to withdraw from the World Judo Championships saw Iran being suspended from the IJF and Mollaei taking up Mongolian citizenship.
Iran’s top chess player Alireza Firouzja, who is also the world’s second-highest rated junior chess player, applied to renounce his Iranian citizenship over pressures to forego matches with Israeli competitors.
Back in 1997 when Israeli cricketers were allowed into Malaysia, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was also the prime minister then, said that, his 1997 decision was to show the world that Muslims were not terrorists. The man seeking to replace him Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim had then said that sports is ‘apolitical’ and mixing politics with sports was wrong.
Fast forward to 2019 and this was what the current Minister of Sport Syed Saddiq said in an interview with the BBC show Hardtalk: “If hosting an international event is more important than safeguarding the interest of our Palestinian brothers and sisters who are being mutilated time after time again, if that is more important it means we have lost our moral conscience and moral compass.”
Between 1997 and 2019, or the fact even before that, nothing much has changed as far as the plight of the Palestinians are concerned.
While Malaysia is taking a stronger stand on the issue, an increasing number of other nations are taking a relook on the matter.
With the treatment by China against the Uyghurs or by Myanmar against the Rohingya, should Malaysia also look at some form of sporting boycott against this nations?
There is no doubt that sports is breaking down political and religious barriers. Just how some of the Arab countries are making adjustments to their policies is an indication of what to expect of the future.
Which also brings us to another interesting question as to how the so-called Middle-East Peace Plan advocated by the Donald Trump administration is going to be played out for the sporting arena?
If the plan is accepted, it could see a new era for sports in the region. But the proposal seems to be dead-on-arrival, with Palestine Authority deciding to cut security ties with both the USA and Israel because they were not consulted at all on the plan that seemingly favours Israel.
After decades of fighting and negotiations, there seems to be no end to the Palestinian plight, but at least as far as sports is concerned, some headway has been achieved.
Making sports truly apolitical is still a dream but at least we would see some light at the end of the tunnel.
After decades of animosity, sport has brought together the feuding South Korea and North Korea. It was China’s ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ that re-established China-USA diplomatic relationships in 1979.
Nelson Mandela brought a nation divide by apartheid together with the hosting of the 1995 Rugby World Cup that a united Springboks went on to win.
The Olympics itself is a result of how sports was used to reduce conflict. In the ninth century Iphitos, the king of Ellis garnered the support of his fellow monarchs and created the tradition of the Olympic Truce, whereby all regional conflict would end for seven days before and after the Games every four years so that the athletes, their families and others could travel to and from the Olympics in peace.
The Olympic Truce was reintroduced at the modern games in 1994, and would also be in place for the Tokyo 2020 Games.
Whether it is the Israel-Palestine or the Pakistan-India conflict, sport can build the bridge for a better future, if used without pride or prejudice.