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Israeli judoka Tohar Bulut
Israeli judoka Tohar Butbul's Olympic experience was overshadowed two opposition withdrawalsImage: Annegret Hilse/REUTERS

Israeli judoka Tohar Butbul responds to Olympic boycotts

Felix Tamsut
July 26, 2021

Judoka Tohar Butbul finished seventh at the Tokyo Olympics, but his sporting achievement has been overshadowed after Sudan's Mohamed Abdalrasool became the second athlete to withdraw from a bout against the Israeli.


Tohar Butbul has said it "pinches my heart" to see fellow athletes being forced to withdraw from the Olympics.

Judokos Mohamed Abdalrasool, of Sudan, and Algeria's Fethi Nourine both dropped out of bouts against Butbul in the under-73kg class at the Tokyo Olympics.

While the official reason for Abdalrasool's withdrawal was a shoulder injury, Nourine was suspended by the International Judo Federation (IJF) after admitting he didn't want to face an Israeli athlete in competition.

"It’s against the spirit of the sport," Butbul tells DW.

"In many cases, the athletes aren’t the ones making those decisions. Athletes are human beings, they want to compete. They’re the victims here, absolutely."

Butbul said it was nothing unusual for Israeli athletes.

Sudan normalized its relations with Israel in January 2021 as part of the Abraham accords. The agreement was widely protested in the country. Algeria, meanwhile, has no official ties with the Jewish state.

"By withdrawing, I represented Algeria"

After withdrawing from the Games on Saturday, Algerian judoka Nourine said he was "fully behind the Palsetinian cause." The 30-year-old later took to Facebook to answer alleged criticism directed at him from within the Algerian Judo Association.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics I Fethi Nourine
Fethi Nourine (pictured) was the first athlete to withdraw from a bout against Tohar Butbul.Image: REUTERS

"The President of the Judo Association was surprised by my decision not to take part in the fight. He said I represent Algeria, not Palestine," wrote the 30-year-old. "It was an honor for me to represent Algeria in different sporting competitions. By withdrawing, I also represented Algeria."

Many Algerian social media users took to Facebook to criticize Nourine's decision to withdraw from the contest, with some perceiving his action as "unsportsmanlike behavior."

"Sport and politics need to be separated, he’s rightly been suspended," said one Facebook comment. "Athletes need to bear in mind they could face Israelis before the competitions. Either stay until the end or don’t compete altogether to avoid the whole circus," said another.

A history of boycotts

Israeli sportspeople are no strangers to boycotts they've mostly taken place in other sports, international attention is often garnered when it involves judo, a sport in which Israel is known to excel. Five out of Israel's 10 Olympic medals of all time have been won in the discipline.

The most high-profile boycott on political grounds took place in September 2019, when Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei was ordered to intentionally lose the semifinal of the Judo World Championship in Tokyo to avoid a potential bout against Israel's Sagi Muki in the final. Mollaei chose to defect from Iran as a result and now represents Mongolia and is known to be good friends with Muki.

Instagram Screenshot of Saeid Mollaei
Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei visited Israel after defecting from the Islamic country.Image: Instagram/israelinpersian

Butbul hopes that he too can reconcile with the opponents who didn't show up to face him in Tokyo. He would like to have a Tikkun, Hebrew for a correcting experience, by competing against them in the future.

"I want us to show things can be different, that it can be about the sport," Butbul says.

Olympic experience overshadowed

Given that the phenomenon is nothing new, the news of the boycotts were met with a decidedly sarcastic reaction back in Israel. "A few more boycotts and the gold medal is ours," one user tweeted in Hebrew.

Butbul went on to finish seventh in the under-73kg category and was clearly disappointed with the result.

"I came here with the pure goal of winning. That's what I've wanted my whole career, but in Judo sometimes there's a small gap between the plan and the reality," said the 27-year-old.

However, it is once again the decisions made by his opponent's and not his sporting achievement that have been at the foreground of his Olympic experience.

Israeli politician Yoel Razvozov, a former judoka himself who experienced a boycott at the Judo World Championships in 2001, took to Twitter to welcome the decision to suspend Algeria's Fethi Nourine: "There's no place for politics in sports. If you don't want to compete against us, stay at home."

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