Monday, January 08, 2007

Building bridges in the Middle East (contd.)

Thanks for the tip from Mick Hartley. --Jeff Weintraub
YNet News (AP)
January 6, 2007
Athlete stripped of Bahraini citizenship for competing in Israeli marathon

Runner Mushir Salem Jawher stripped of Bahraini citizenship after competing in and winning Israeli marathon. Bahraini Athletic Union receives news of competition with 'shock and regret' (Associated Press)

Authorities have revoked the Bahraini citizenship of a Kenyan-born athlete who ran in an Israeli marathon, the nation's athletic union said Saturday.

Bahraini runner Mushir Salem Jawher competed and won the Tiberias Marathon in Israel on Thursday, ending the race in just over 2 hours and 13 minutes.

Most Arab states do not recognize Israel, and the Jerusalem Post newspaper said Jawher was the first athlete from an Arab country to compete in an Israeli marathon. Jawher was born in Kenya in 1978 and moved to Bahrain in 2003, according to the International Association of Athletics Federation.

The Jerusalem Post cited Jawher as saying he was "very proud" to have run in Israel. Even though Bahrain has no official ties with the Jewish state, "It is a free country," the athlete was quoted as saying.

Bahrain's Athletic Union said in a statement Saturday that it had received the news that a Bahraini national competed in Israel with "shock and regret."

"The union deeply regrets what the athlete has done," the statement said. A comity of sport and government authorities decided to strike Jawher's name off the sport union records and strip off his Bahraini nationality, the statement said.

It said Jawher had entered Israel with his Kenyan passport and added that the runner's Bahraini citizenship was revoked because he had "violated the laws of Bahrain." The tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain has no official ties with Israel but is a close political ally of the United States. The oil-refining and banking island also hosts the US 5th Fleet.
Jerusalem Post (Sports)
January 8, 2007
The naivete of Mushir Salem Jawher

The pre-race press conference for the Tiberias Marathon, held in a small room in the town's Golden Tulip Hotel on Wednesday evening, was a run-of-the-mill affair. True, there was a group of five African athletes sitting at one end of the table, but nobody even mentioned the fact that one of the group was a Kenyan who had agreed to run on behalf of Bahrain because the Arab state had offered him a nice sum of money.

None of the Kenyans was eager to speak, as all seemed rather muted and overawed by the fact that they had been brought over to Israel to lower the finish time and raise the profile of the race around Lake Kinneret.

In fact, only one of them spoke at all at the press conference, 2002 winner Simon Boh (who incidentally finished third in Thursday's race). Boh expressed his gratitude at being invited back to Israel and said he felt Tiberias "has a lot of blessings" because straight after winning the event five years earlier, he had gone on to post his personal best of 2 hours 7 minutes.

I think Mushir Salem Jawher was in the room, and after the official conference, I think I heard someone say something about Bahrain, but it definitely wasn't an issue. All anyone was focusing on was how good the weather conditions were going to be (they turned out to be quite bad in the end) and the 10th appearance of perennial women's race winner Nili Abramski at the age of 37 (she won again on Thursday, her ninth win!).

That all changed at around 11 a.m. on Thursday morning.

Four athletes, who had run all but the last kilometer of the 42km race together, finished within 36 seconds of each other. Any of them could have won. But fate had it that it was Jawher who pipped his former Kenyan teammate Joseph Kirwabirgen to the post by just two seconds.

As soon as it was made clear that Jawher was a Bahraini, the Israeli journalists pounced, less than a minute after he had finished running for more than two hours. But Jawher was the perfect gentleman and answered all the questions honestly and fairly, showing his true intentions and perhaps too much naivete.

He said he was "proud" to run in Israel, that he thought it was a lovely country and the people had been very nice and friendly and that he believed that as we are in the 21st century, "there should be no restrictions" on where athletes are allowed to run.

Unfortunately, as we know now, it seems the Bahrain Athletics Union doesn't have such a free-spirited attitude and promptly stripped the 29-year-old of his citizenship, and therefore his livelihood, because Bahrain does not recognize Israel.

The statement by the BAU, as reported by the Associated Press, that it was shocked and it regretted Jawher's participation in the race, are nothing less than disgusting.

Jawher was nothing more than a good-natured man trying to do his best to earn a living and promote freedom and peace. On Sunday, Israeli Athletic Association chairman Shlomo Ben-Gal announced that he would be sending a letter to the International Association of Athletics Federations requesting it support Jawher.

"According to the international treaty, an athlete has the freedom to compete at any event he chooses to and there can be no discrimination for political reasons," Gal rightly said. "We believe that sports should be above all political considerations, and that athletes and sporting events can bridge and connect between countries across the world."

Perhaps it was a little naive of Jawher to not even consider that his sponsor country would be less than happy to find out that he had participated in an event in Israel, let alone won it. But there is no way that the athlete should have been publicly humiliated for his decision, and the only country to come out looking bad from this whole sorry affair is Bahrain itself, which appears racist and downright embarrassing.