The Moroccan national wrestling team is due to compete in Israel this month, following the warming of ties between Israel and some Arab countries, which continues to bear fruit in the sports world.
The tournament, which will take place in the southern city of Beersheba on August 25-26, will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Organizers have dubbed the tournament “The Slavin, Halfen, Weinberg & Gottfreund Memorial”, named after Israeli wrestlers killed by Palestinian terrorists in Munich.
Eleven members of the Israeli Olympic delegation were killed by the Black September terror group in this massacre. Mark Slavin and Eliezer Halfen were to compete in the wrestling events of the Games, Moshe Weinberg was their trainer and Yossef Gottfreund their referee. Weinberg’s nephew, Aviram Shmuely, a former member of the Israeli national team, helped organize the upcoming Beersheba tournament and will referee some of the matches.
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American brothers Ben Peterson and John Peterson, Olympic gold medalists, will lead a training camp during the event. Both Petersons competed in the Munich Olympics.
The Moroccan team will include at least eight athletes and ten other delegation members, including high-level officials from United World Wrestling, the international body that governs amateur wrestling, Israeli organizers said.
The Moroccan wrestling federation said in a letter that it had accepted the Israeli team’s invitation to the tournament « under the patronage of His Majesty King Mohamed VI ». The Moroccan government funds the team’s participation.
That « sport can always contribute to peace in the world and to friendship between nations » can be read in the letter addressed to the Israeli Wrestling Federation by the Moroccan representative Fouad Meskout, president of the African Council of the United World Wrestling,
The unofficial title of the competition is Wrestle for Peace [Lutte pour la paix].
The Moroccan team and the Israeli Wrestling Federation will also sign an agreement on continuing to train and compete together, Israeli organizers said.
Besides Morocco and Israel, athletes from the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Greece and Tajikistan will take part in the Beer Sheva tournament. United World Wrestling has sanctioned this event as an official senior-level event in Greco-Roman wrestling and men’s freestyle wrestling, the two international styles contested at the Olympics.
In addition to forging ties with Morocco, the Israeli wrestling federation sees the tournament as a big step forward for the sport in Israel.
« This is truly a key event to reinvigorate the Israel Wrestling Federation, » said organizer Jake Kornblatt. “The federation needs support. Most coaches act as administrators and have a full-time job at the same time. »
« It’s important because it helps the community and there’s potential here, » he added. The organizers are mobilizing for Israeli officials and representatives of the Moroccan embassy to attend the competition.
Wrestling, one of the oldest and most grueling sports, is neither widespread nor closely followed in Israel, unlike judo, which is similar to wrestling and one of the sports in which Israel is proving be good on the world stage. Most Israeli wrestlers come from immigrant communities in the former Soviet Union, where the sport is popular, such as Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. Most of the training takes place in clubs located in cities like Bat Yam, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beer Sheva.
« The kids are tough and the coaches have a strong mentality, but the country as a whole doesn’t really support athletics. The infrastructure needed to support the periphery is not sufficient,” Kornblatt said.
« It’s an instrument that can help mentor and support children and those communities who practice wrestling, that’s their thing, » he added. “It’s one of the things that defines their culture and it’s a way to uplift these communities. »
Several Israeli wrestlers have made inroads in international competitions, including Yuri Kalashnikov, Daniel Popov and Melkamu Fetene.
A major American wrestling organization, Beat the Streets, will send a group of athletes to the Beer Sheva tournament to compete in the training camp. In addition to the Peterson brothers, the camp will be led by the first American world champion in Greco-Roman wrestling, Mike Houck. Beat the Streets runs a network of clubs in US cities that use sport to support young people from disadvantaged communities, a possible model for Israel. Kornblatt, a wrestler from the United States, helped found Beat the Streets in Cleveland and discussed the possibility of establishing a branch in Israel.
The Beer Sheva tournament is the most recent culmination of the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco in 2020. These agreements have borne fruit in the areas of trade , diplomacy, tourism and security.
Ties have also warmed in the sports world, following Israel’s prolonged exclusion from regional competitions and the discrimination it faced internationally. United World Wrestling had sanctioned the Iranian wrestling team for refusing to compete against Israelis, and an Egyptian wrestler once bit her Israeli opponent. In judo, athletes from Iran and Arab countries have repeatedly refused to fight Israeli competitors, including at the Tokyo Olympics.
In January, Israeli basketball player Mohamed Abu Arisha signed a contract to play in a Moroccan professional team, a first for the country. Morocco’s women’s basketball team hosted their Israeli counterparts for the first time in June.
Since the signing of the agreements, the United Arab Emirates has welcomed Israeli football, rugby and hockey players, and a Dubai football team has bought an Israeli athlete. A youth football team from the Emirates has participated in a tournament in Israel Last year.