In July 2011, Alirezaei refused to enter the same pool as an Israeli at the Shanghai FINA World Championships. Last October, Algerian judoka Meriem Moussa refused to compete against Israel's Shahar Levi in the knockout round of the Judo World Cup. A month later Rawan Ali, an Egyptian taekwondo champion, refused to compete when she learned her opponent was Israeli. And this past May, in a story that got considerable attention throughout the Middle East, a Tunisian 10-year-old refused to play against an Israeli opponent at the World School Chess Championship.
In some cases the Arab athletes assert that their forfeitures are to protest Israeli policy against its Palestinian population. In other cases the thinking is that competing against Israeli athletes would legitimize the state of Israel, with which the Arab athletes' governments refuse to have diplomatic relations. But the decision to forfeit may not have been the athletes'. One former Israeli athlete tells a story of facing an Iranian opponent who stepped away in forfeit, then afterward approached him and apologized. "He was actually very nice," the Israeli recalls. "He said, 'Sorry, but they'll kill me if I would have fought.'"
"You know the real shame?" says Ohad Balva, the Israeli national fencing coach, who rattles off a litany of examples of forfeiture. "It's not fair to either kid. I feel bad for both people. You train and train, and then you don't get to compete?"
In something less than a Solomonic solution the IOC and various sports governing bodies have at least mitigated controversy by separating Israel and Arab countries. Though Israel's immediate neighbors—Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria—compete in Asian qualifiers, Israel has been assigned to the European division. This keeps the peace at the events, though it can work to the detriment of Israeli athletes. (The Israeli soccer team, once it was grouped with such powers as Spain, France, Italy and Germany, has never qualified for a World Cup or European championship tournament.) But it also has the effect of defining Israel as a special case, as other.
What's more, it doesn't address the possibility of a forfeiture at these Olympics. Asked last month by The Times of London whether Algeria's policy of declining to face Israelis would persist at the 2012 Games, the head of the country's Olympic committee responded only that it was "up to the Algerian government." Iran vowed that its athletes would compete against Israelis, but last week it announced that Javad Mahjoub, a judo champion and the only Iranian athlete who could conceivably face an Israeli, was suffering from a "critical digestive system infection" that would prevent him from competing in London.
As for the IOC's position, a spokeswoman put it this way to SI: "There can be no discrimination for any reason between participants at the Olympic Games.... If an athlete/team is unable to come to the Games in a spirit of friendship and fair play, then they should stay at home."
SPEND SOME time in the Middle East, and this quickly becomes clear: The persistent conflict isn't truly between Judeo-Christians and Muslims or between Israelis and Arabs. It is a battle—in some cases a fight to the death—between moderates and extremists on both sides. Over and over you'll hear the same refrain: The vast majority of the people want peace, but it takes only one zealot on either side to undo progress.
Yet those Israeli athletes who are sometimes the object of boycotts by their counterparts in the Arab world? You'd be hard-pressed to find a more moderate cohort of young adults, some of them bracingly candid. If you want to make Israeli Olympians laugh, ask them if they've ever sat for a pregame prayer or declined to play on the Sabbath. "We're very secular," says Ram. "I don't know if people expect us to play in yarmulkes, but if so, they'd be surprised."
While most of the athletes served in the army (generally mandatory for Israelis between 18 and 21), many received a special exemption to train in their sports during their service. Politically, they hardly have a party line. "Sometimes I look at my country, and I don't see myself in it; other times I feel represented," says Gidi Kliger, a sailor who has one of Israel's best chances to win a medal in London. "Sometimes I see what's going on [with Israeli policy] and I'm embarrassed; other times I'm proud. That's democracy, no?"
Most of Israel's athletes have views about Palestinian statehood, a preemptive strike on Iran, the morality of holding on to the Occupied Territories and other hot-button topics that polarize Israelis. But a more pressing concern is the status of sports among the country's cultural priorities. Education, innovation and, yes, security are of high national importance. Faster, higher, stronger? Not so much. So it is that Israel takes far greater pride in its 10 Nobel laureates and the multitude of Israeli tech start-ups on the NASDAQ exchange—more than those of any other country save the U.S. and China—than it does in its seven Olympic medalists. Even at the Olympic Experience, an interactive display at the Israeli Olympic Center in Tel Aviv, the central story line is of an athlete who abandons her Olympic dreams to return to school. (Eventually a coach persuades her to stick with sports.) "Remember, the mentality is still one of survival," says Kliger. "Sports are seen as leisure, a luxury."