Imagine putting on a professional tennis match at the highest level -- and then preventing tennis fans from watching. That somewhat odd scenario will become reality this weekend as Sweden takes on Israel in a Davis Cup match in Malmo. The mayor of the southern Swedish city, Ilmar Reepalu, says he is worried about security.
Lately, though, Reepalu's list of worries has gotten longer. His decision has generated a fair amount of controversy in both Sweden and abroad. Furthermore, suspicion has grown that security may not have been the only reason behind Reepalu's decision -- and that the Davis Cup match represents just the latest in a series of events in which Israeli athletes have been discriminated against.
In late January, the mayor of the city of 280,000 told the local newspaper Sydsvenska Dagbladet that "my personal opinion is that one should not play a match against Israel at all in this situation." He continued, "the issue is one of crimes against human rights. There is so much weighing against (Israel)."
Reepalu also cited his city's large population of residents with Middle Eastern descent, saying "I understand they are uncomfortable about this and want to demonstrate. This is not a match against just anybody. It's a match against the state of Israel."
Police estimate that up to 10,000 protesters -- from such disparate groups as far-left activists and neo-Nazis -- will gather outside the city's 4,000-seat Baltic Hall as the first-round Davis Cup matches are played inside from Friday to Sunday.
Organizers have pledged that the protests, ostensibly aimed at Israel's recent three-week offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, will be peaceful. Still, local authorities plan to deploy up to 1,000 officers to keep the peace. Officials have also borrowed 12 police buses and a van from Danish police -- their reinforced windows can withstand the force of large stones.
Strong Words of Criticism, But Little Action
The Malmo mayor's decision has drawn criticism from the International Tennis Federation, which presides over the Davis Cup. In a statement last week, ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti said that he believed that planned security measures were sufficient. "Therefore we do not agree with the decision by the Malmo authorities to exclude the public," Ricci Bitti said.
Swedish tennis authorities likewise voiced their displeasure. As have athletes from both countries. "Politics won over sports," Israeli player Andy Ram lamented. "That's sad. You don't see that very often in tennis." Thomas Johansson, Sweden's top player, agreed. "What happened in Gaza was horrible," Johansson said. "But you have to separate between sports and politics."
Reepalu, though, has remained immune to the criticism, and has likewise shunned efforts to get the event moved to Stockholm. In response, ITF president Ricci Bitti has said that "the city of Malmo will not be welcome to organize such an event again." Ram, though, says that tennis authorities have not pressed the issue hard enough. "They say it's bad but they don't do anything," Ram told the Associated Press Thursday. "They have to act."
Not A Solitary Event
The Malmo controversy isn't the first incident surrounding the Israeli tennis team. In mid-February, the United Arab Emirates denied Israeli player Shahar Peer a visa to participate in the Dubai Tennis Championships. When the men were scheduled to play a week later, the organizers flip-flopped after US player Andy Roddick, the tournament's defending champion, withdrew in protest. Ram, whose visa had also been held up, was allowed to play.
Still, it is hardly the kind of incident one expects to see in Sweden. And Ram, for his part, is worried that it may not end up being the last. Talking to reporters after Tuesday practice, Ram said "I think (the Malmo mayor's decision) maybe can open the door for other countries to make a stupid decision like this one."
There is, though, at least one recent incident that may lend credence to Reepalu's security concerns. In January, an Israeli basketball team was run off the court in Ankara, Turkey after fans began yelling "death to the Jews" and bombarding players with bottles. The team holed up in the locker room for two hours before heading back to their hotel under heavy police escort.