Politics…again

Whitten, Phillip

In June. the World Masters Swimming Championships were held in Casablanca, Morocco, the first time a major international swim meet was held on the African continent. Masters swimmers from 50 nations participated in the event. Though there were major organizational and logistical problems, most of the participants returned home from Morocco with memories that will be treasured for a lifetime. With one exception.

Among the 2,400 athletes entered in the meet were 10 Israelis-including three world record holders, likely contenders for gold medals at the World Championships. None showed up for their events.

Curious as to what had happened, I met for more than an hour with Colonel Mustapha Zekri, general secretary of the Moroccan National Olympic Committee, and Abdelhamid Essakali, vice chairman of the press commission. Both of these gentlemen were friendly and courteous, explaining that the Israeli swimmers had applied for their visas just days before the deadline and that, therefore, there was not time to arrange for adequate security.

“It was a political decision,” Essakali told me, “one that was made by politicians, not by sports officials.” Colonel Zekri pointed out that Morocco and Israel have good relations: “When (former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon) Peres came to Morocco, the Israeli flag flew over the king’s palace,” he recalled. And it was true.

What was not true, however, was the visa story. Upon investigation, I learned that five Israeli swimmers plus an Israeli official who was a member of the meet organizing committee, had applied forand been granted-visas several months before the deadline. The other five did, indeed, apply just days before the deadline-but still well within the period specified by FINA. When the second five applied, they indicated they were coming to Morocco to compete at the World Masters Championships. At that point, Moroccan officials denied their visa requests and revoked the visas of the other Israelis.

Turns out this was the second time this scenario has played out in Morocco this year! In February, Israeli runners were denied visas and were unable to compete in the World Cross Country Championships.

Aware of the cross country situation, Ross Wales, president of United States Aquatic Sports (USAS) and a FINA official, wrote a letter attempting to ensure that there would not be a repeat of that shameful act. He was assured the Israelis would be allowed to compete.

Among its many virtues, international sport-at all levels-is a potent force for international peace, cooperation and understanding. That’s why, when a nation bids to host an international meet, it agrees to allow all eligible athletes to participate. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, for example, Cuban athletes participated despite chilly relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

Morocco has violated its commitment to allow qualified Masters swimmers and cross country runners from one nation, Israel, to compete in the world championship events held on its soil. It is an egregious violation of the spirit and the letter of international sport.

Swimming World urges United States Swimming, U.S. Masters Swimming, USAS and the U.S. Olympic Committee to express its outrage at this violation in the strongest possible terms to FINA and the IOC, urging those bodies to take harsh action against Morocco and Moroccan officials. In addition. we believe Morocco should not be allowed to host any future international sporting events for the foreseeable future.

Copyright Sports Publications, Inc. Aug 1998

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