Anger rises as Israel heads to World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Doha

As Doha prepares to host the 2018 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships vocal residents and local Qataris alike have announced their boycott of the event thanks to Israel’s participation.

The outraged audience has taken to Twitter to voice their anger about what they perceive as the normalization of relations with Israel, which they view as an illegitimate state on occupied Palestinian land.

This is not the first time that controversy has tarnished a sporting event in Qatar, but it has nonetheless caused outrage from a usually complacent, and somewhat docile populace.

How did it all begin?

Anger erupts

The Israeli Haaretz initially broke the story, which soon made waves on social media, particularly Twitter. The headline was of course absent from local media – as you would expect from the censored Qatari press.

Replies to the Doha World Artistic Gymnastics Championships ads on Twitter

Residents and Qataris took to Twitter almost immediately and hijacked the hashtag used by the organizers of the tournament (#GoGymtastic and its Arabic variant #يلا_جمباز) and used instead #GoNormalization or #يلا_تطبيع . A youth group that focuses on opposing the legitimization of Israel as been particularly vocal in their objections.

The “Qatar’s Youth Against Normalization” group on Twitter

According to AJ+, a youth-oriented, online news service under the umbrella of the Qatari Al-Jazeera Media Network, President of the Qatari Gymnastics Federation Ali Al-Hitmi diplomatically stated that the local organizing committee will host the event according to the international regulations of the sport. Or in other words, they would not and essentially cannot ban the Israeli athletes from participating.

Interestingly, Al-Hitmi is also a member of the International Gymnastics Federation’s (FIG) executive committee, after being elected for a second term in 2016, despite Qatar having no notable athletes in the sport.

Meanwhile the anger continues to build. The root of the growing ire stems from two factors, primarily the well-known and repeated crimes of the Israeli state against Palestinian civilians. The second factor contributing to the uproar is that not only will Israeli athletes who represent an oppressive government compete in Doha, but they are incredibly likely to win. In fact, in the 2017 World Artistic Gymnastics, Artem Dolgopyat, who is expected to compete in Doha, won the silver medal in the floor exercise.

While Israeli athletes have competed many times in Doha over the years, in a variety of different sports, this is the only time they have a true chance of winning in a World Championship-level event. This means that the organizers will have to raise the Israeli flag at the podium and play their national anthem if they win gold, according to Al-Hitmi’s statement that the Championships will be held according to FIG’s rules.

Previously Doha has side-stepped such issues by simply ignoring them. Rather than broadcasting the Israeli flag through on-screen graphics, a black box was used instead. Will this approach work for Doha in the World Championships?

And more importantly, why does the public continue to express anger over the participation of Israeli athletes, who are entirely unrelated to politics, instead of Qatar’s continued and decades-old relations with Israel?

Once again it seems that issues other than sport have taken center stage at an international championships in Doha, and until Qatar can reconcile the apparent duplicity in their international relations, this will continue to be the case.

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