Israeli judoka Raz Hershko said Saudi fighter Tahani Al-Qahtani was brave to show up to their match last week at the Tokyo Olympics.
“I was so happy that she put — and the country put — the politics out of it,” Hershko said in an English-language video interview with Arab News published on Wednesday. “We did both of us what we love to do, and the things we want to do and because of this we came to this competition.”
Israel and Saudi Arabia have no official diplomatic ties, and speculation ran rampant before the match that Al-Qahtani would not show up to compete against Hershko. Earlier in the games, two male judokas — one from Algeria and the other from Sudan — pulled out of their matches to avoid facing off against Israeli judoka Tohar Butbul.
But Al-Qahtani not only showed up, she even shook Hershko’s hand following their match — something Egyptian judoka Islam el-Shahaby refused to do after competing against Israel’s Ori Sasson at the Rio 2016 Games.
“I think she was brave,” said Hershko. “The politics stayed out of the competition and the sport won in the end… she was brave to come to the fight and do what she loved. We fought a fair fight and in the end we shook hands and everything was okay.”
Hershko beat Al-Qahtani in their match in the women’s over-78kg category, although she was eliminated herself in the next round. But a day later, the Israeli won her fight in the mixed judo competition bronze medal match against the Russian Olympic Committee, helping the entire Israeli judo team to return home with medals around their necks.
The Israeli athlete told Arab News that to her it was the same to fight someone from Saudi Arabia as someone from South Africa or the United States. “It’s the same, we are the same athletes, we have the same dream, we have the same love — this is the important thing.”
Al-Qahtani is only the second Saudi female judoka to ever compete at the Olympic Games, and one of only two female Saudi athletes competing at the Tokyo Games this year.
Following the match between the two women, the International Judo Federation said the fight shows that “judo makes history and helps to build a better world, where respect is the core value of human relations. Saudi Arabia proves that, through sport, we can go beyond differences and make sport a force to unite the world.”
Hershko told the news outlet that she would accept an invitation to compete in Saudi Arabia in the future: “Of course, why not?”