Defying expectations that she would forfeit the match as other Muslim competitors have, Saudi Arabia’s judoka Tahani Alqahtani faced off against Israel’s Raz Hershko in the Tokyo Olympics on Friday. Alqahtani lost the match, but courage and good sportsmanship was the big winner.
Al-Monitor Tahani Alqahtani is the first Saudi woman to compete in judo at the Olympics, bucking the trend of Middle Eastern and North African athletes refusing to face Israelis at the games.
The global governing body of judo praised a Saudi Olympian on Friday for agreeing to compete against an Israeli opponent. The International Judo Federation said that Saudi Arabia demonstrated that sports can bring people together.
“Saudi Arabia proves that, through sport, we can go beyond differences and make sport a force to unite the world,” the federation said in a press release.
Historically, many athletes from Arab or Muslim nations have boycotted playing against Israelis in sporting matches. A pair of Muslim judokas forfeited their matches this week rather than face an Israeli opponent.
The Hershko-Al-Qahtani match came after Algerian judoka Fethi Nourine was sent home from the games for refusing to compete against Isarel’s Tohar Butbul. The International Judo Federation called Nourine’s stance “in total opposition to the philosophy of the IJF. The IJF has a strict non-discrimination policy, promoting solidarity as a key principle.”
According to a report by MEMRI published on Monday, some Saudis and Palestinians have called on Al-Qahtani to withdraw from the games, though many Saudi journalists and intellectuals online are encouraging her to show up for the match.
Israel Hayom Hershko beat Al-Qahtani, but went on to be eliminated from the Tokyo Games. After the match, Hershko and Al-Qahtani shared a warm, non-combative embrace.
“I’m happy this match took place. After the match, we talked a little in the hall, but she [Al-Qahtani] didn’t want the media to document it. We shook hands and hugged, we talked about the match, about the situation in her country,” Hershko said.
“I told her I understood, and that she was brave. I’m happy she eventually stood up, despite everything, and fought like she should. I’m happy that the sport won out,” Hershko added.