SBJ/Sept. 25-Oct. 1, 2017/Opinion

The Friendship Games: Where basketball and diplomacy meet

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O n the second day of the 12th annual Friendship Games, dozens of attendees from around the world boarded a yacht and set sail on the Red Sea. Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians rode banana boats together, Russians danced with Ukrainians and Lithuanians; the intermingling was contagious.

For groups of young people who would prefer to keep to their own, the confines of the boat forced an interaction, teaching them the Games’ most vital lesson: It’s difficult to hate an entire group of people once you’ve spent some quality time getting to know a few of them.

Such is the aim of the Friendship Games. Sponsored by former Atlanta Hawks co-owner Ed Peskowitz, the 12th annual installment of the Games in the scenic beach town of Eilat, Israel, brought together basketball players between the ages of 18 and 32 from eight countries.

“It was an opportunity, just by happenstance, to do something with international understanding,” said Peskowitz, who was originally asked to help create a traditional peace summit, but instead proposed an event surrounding sports.

American and Israeli professor Michael Leitner, who surveys participants before and after the tournament to gauge its effectiveness, said: “I believe, through personal observation but also data that we’ve collected, that it really changes Arabs’ and Jews’ attitudes toward each other, making it more positive, increasing trust and decreasing the perception that the other side hates them.”

While traditional “peace summits” may have trouble attracting young participants, the Friendship Games uses basketball to bring together people from conflicting countries, who otherwise would never consider boarding a boat or simply conversing with someone long considered an enemy.

Ukrainian coach Leonid Derbaba, 81, leads his team during a timeout.
Photo by: NADAV COHEN


“This is the power of sport, people from different nationalities, different religions,” games organizer Arie Rosenzweig said at the event’s closing ceremonies, which were held on the shores of the Red Sea. “We have Christians, Muslims and [Jews] in Israel … together.”

With sites sacred to three prominent religions, Israel is oftentimes at the center of international conflict. The challenge the Friendship Games organizers face each year is getting attendees to find common ground.

This year’s participants hailed from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland and Germany. Expecting a shared love of the sport to unify countries with historically rocky relationships may sound too good to be true, but for more than a decade, it has been reality.

The setup revolves around basketball, where players vary in skill level: Some play for their university teams, others play professionally in their respective countries or are looking to go pro in others. However, sport turned out to be perhaps the least important aspect of the Games.

Instead, social events were the focal point. Because while the Games essentially pit two countries at a time against each other, each evening’s social event gave the athletes no choice but to come together. Over the course of the week, participants gradually took to socializing with others instead of just sticking with their compatriots.

In a women’s game between Russia and Lithuania, the Russian head coach disagreed with a call in the game’s final minute, leading to a loud, dramatic forfeit. Still, a party in the evening erased the on-court squabbles.

Ukraine and Lithuania face off in the men’s semifinals.
Photo by: HANNAH YASHAROFF


Games organizer Eden Carmi and social events chair Ronen Tinn coordinated a variety of social activities each night following the day’s competition, all of which Carmi said differed from the previous year to entice participants to return. Dancing and drinks were the center of many of those events, whether taking place at a camel ranch, on the edge of a beach or on the yacht.

“When an Arabic song would come on, the Palestinians or Jordanians or Arabs from Jaffa [Israel] would start to dance to their music and other people would get to learn and see how their culture is,” said Marta Coelho, a member of the Israeli Jewish women’s team. “Same with the Russian songs and other cultural and traditional songs from the other countries. It’s an event that lets people … learn a bit about different cultures.”

But it wasn’t all fun and games. Attendees’ safety was also a primary concern for tournament organizers, who pay particular attention to protecting the identities of Palestinian and Jordanian players and coaches. At best, they risk social backlash at home and losing a spot on their local teams. At worst, word spreading of their involvement in the tournament could lead to others in their communities threatening players’ lives.

For that reason, all photos and videos had to be checked by a Games staff member to ensure no Palestinians or Jordanians could be identified in the background.

Aside from the basketball, the merging of a new community produced fascinating theater. Everyone involved with the tournament stayed together in the same hotel, ate every meal in the hotel restaurant and attended the social events.

A nice testament to the power of the Friendship Games — and one that didn’t exist when the event debuted in 2006 — was the Snapchat adds, Facebook friend requests and Instagram follows that littered the last couple of days. Newfound international friendships didn’t have to end there or wait an entire year for the next tournament. They carry on even now, as the tournament directors, coaches and players continue to upload photos of their fun times online.

Athletes participate in a team building obstacle course during the opening ceremonies.
Photo by: NADAV COHEN


“Basketball athletes from different countries, different religions and different cultures … played together, exchanged thoughts, discovered new perspectives and beliefs, made new friends, and joined together to assemble a worldwide humongous loving family,” Mohamad Mawassi, a member of the Israeli Arab men’s team, wrote in a Facebook post following the tournament’s closing ceremonies. “Shout out for all my European, American, Jordanian, Palestinian, & Israeli brothers and sisters for making this tournament one of the best adventurous journeys in my life which I hope will be ongoing with many years to come.”

The Friendship Games won’t — just as it previously hasn’t — suddenly solve conflict in the Middle East. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t create lasting friendships, or make a small difference in a greater cause.

“The purpose of this tournament is to connect people and to show everybody that we are all humans,” said Amir Kahana, the Israeli Jewish women’s team coach. “We are born, we die, we live a few years on this planet; love. We fight on the court, the game is finished; love. And this is what the tournament is all about.”

The event’s organizers sponsored student coverage of the Friendship Games. Editorial control of the coverage and content remained with the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Alex Flum is scheduled to graduate from Merrill College in 2018 and Hannah Yasharoff in 2019.

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