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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Sports

LEBANON: Seven Estonian hostages freed after nearly four months in captivity

A case that for months was shrouded in mystery has finally come to an end.

After nearly four months in captivity, seven Estonian cyclists abducted by a group of gunmen as they entered Lebanon from Syria where they had done a bicycle tour were freed in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley on Thursday.

The Estonian foreign ministry said in a statement that the men were all in "good health" and that they were being looked after at the French embassy in Beirut.

Their release, the statement says, came as a result of cooperation by Estonia, Lebanon and others.

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BAHRAIN: After rounding up activists, doctors, authorities now target soccer stars

Aala-Hubail First they came for the street activists and opposition leaders. Then they rounded up medical doctors whom they suspected sympathized with protesters.

Now they allegedly torture their sports stars.

Bahraini authorities appear to leave no stone -- or soccer field for that matter -- unturned in their sectarian campaign against the Shiite political opposition and those suspected of siding with it.

According to a report published in the Australian Saturday via the Times of London, several Bahraini soccer players including stars of the country's national team, were tortured while held in detainment after their arrest by security forces for participating in a protest against Bahrain's ruling Al-Khalifa family in March.

They include striker Alaa Hubail and his brother Mohammed as well as goalkeeper Ali Saeed -- all three members of the Bahrain's national soccer team.

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ISRAEL: Soccer legend's death puts organ donation debate in center field

Avi_cohenOne of Israel's favorite winners, soccer legend Avi Cohen, lost the battle for his life last week, after 
  a critical injury in a motorcycle spill.

The 54-year-old athlete was a childhood hero of many, after making local history in 1979 as the first Israeli soccer player to sign with a big international team as defender for Liverpool and later with the Glasgow Rangers.

His son Tamir -- himself a promising footballer now playing in England -- had rushed home to be at his father's bedside.

Pray for him, he and the family asked supporters waiting for good news at the hospital and at home. They sought higher help too, meeting with rabbis who came to the hospital to give their blessings.

A week later, Cohen was pronounced brain dead. His heart stopped the following morning.

Fans observed a minute of applause on soccer fields on both sides of the ocean. Liverpoolers wished him a final farewell with their trademark 'YWNA' -- "you'll never walk alone."

Cohen's death united fans but also divided people in a debate about a sensitive issue: organ donation.

Brain death is the point at which relatives are approached for their consent to organ donation. The medical window of opportunity isn't always wide, around 12 hours in this case. Cohen had an organ donor card but his family couldn't bring themselves to act on it. 

Initially, they agreed. Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar reportedly called the family, personally urging them to approve; other rabbis discouraged them. Finally,the family decided against it.

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ISRAEL: Jerusalem Marathon runs into politics

 When Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat invited people to participate in the Jerusalem Marathon, he called it a "challenging sporting event." Still 100 days away, the city's first full marathon is already giving the mayor -- a five-time marathoner himself -- a run for his money.

After someone pointed out to three city council members that the course ran through parts of East Jerusalem,  they sent a letter of protest to Adidas, one of the international event's main sponsors.

The officials, Meretz members Pepe Alalu, Laura Wharton and Meir Margalit, said they felt it was their duty to inform Adidas that the marathon was "to run through parts of East Jerusalem that are considered occupied territories by the international community and by us."

"The overwhelming majority of the general population abroad will doubtless express their opposition once details of the marathon are made public," the letter said.

That's all it took. Adidas asked for "clarifications" about the course, and, according to the Hebrew daily Maariv, was considering removing its sponsorship for fear of a consumer boycott.

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YEMEN: Soccer tournament boosts tourism in country plagued by Al Qaeda


At a time when the poorest Arab nation is torn by internal conflicts and escalating threats from Al Qaeda, soccer's Gulf Cup is calming Yemen's spirit and easing its financial woes.

The Yemeni minister of tourism said this week that the tournament, taking place between Nov.22 and Dec.5, has drawn about 20,000 fans from neighboring countries in the Arab peninsula to watch games in the cities of Aden and Abin.

"Revenues from hosting the Gulf Cup have so far exceeded the $600-million margin. We consider this tournament to become the future gate of Yemeni tourism," said the minister, Nabil Al Faqih.

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IRAN: Shooting for gold at 16th Asian Games in China


The 16th Asian Games are underway in Guangzhou, China, and aside from an ongoing flap over the naming of the Persian Gulf, Iran is participating wholeheartedly, fielding nearly 400 athletes and winning 14 medals so far, the most for any Middle East country participating in the games.

On Wednesday, Iran won two gold medals for men's tae kwan do, its first gold in the Games since they began Nov. 12.

It also won a silver medal for women's 50-meter rifle three-position shooting. Wang Chengyi of China won the gold medal in the event. 

-- Los Angeles Times

Photo: Elaheh Ahmadi of Iran concentrates between rounds during the women's 50-meter three-position rifle shooting event at the 16th Asian Games in Guangzhou, China. She won the silver medal in the event. Credit: Wong Maye-E / Associated Press

IRAN: Row over Persian vs. Arabian Gulf at China games ruffles Tehran's feathers

Picture 1Iran views China as its key strategic partner and shield against harsh international scrutiny when it comes to its nuclear program. 

But it didn't take long for Iranians to raise hackles of protest after organizers of the 16th Asian Games held in Guangzhou, China, referred to the Persian Gulf, the stretch of water separating Iran from the Arabian Peninsula, as the "Arabian Gulf."

Irked Iranian officials began to send letters of protest to the offices of their Chinese counterparts over the weekend condemning what they called name "distortion."

Iran's ambassador to China, Mehdi Safari, told Iran's state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) that a number of notes protesting the incident had been sent to the Chinese Foreign Ministry as well as to the organizers of the sports event, prompting an apology from both agencies to Iran.

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TURKEY: Cheerleaders go for modesty at Iran-U.S. basketball game


The United States, including Lakers star Lamar Odom, blew out Iran score-wise in the basketball game between the two teams in the FIBA World Championship in Istanbul on Wednesday with an 88-51 victory over the Islamic Republic.

But Iran may have won a smaller victory. It may have prompted the otherwise lightly clad Ukrainian cheerleaders to dress a little more conservatively for the game.

Patrick Baumann, secretary-general of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), said "special arrangements" had been made prior to the game on Wednesday regarding the dancers' outfits to respect cultural sensitivities, reported Reuters.

"It is a balance between respecting the culture and making sure basketball delivers all the pace, excitement and entertainment that goes with the World Championship," the news agency quoted him as saying at a news conference.

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IRAN: Ahmadinejad slams Paul the 'psychic' octopus

Paul Like so many troubled stars before him, Paul the 'psychic' octopus was duped by fame into believing that the good times would last forever.

But after accurately predicting the outcome of all seven World Cup games, Paul now faces accusations of "spreading Western propaganda and superstition" from none other than Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad reportedly called Paul a symbol of "decadence and decay" among the enemies of Iran during a speech in Tehran over the weekend.

Whether Paul will be able to save his career remains to be seen. Ahmadinejad's comments follow a string of bad reviews and increasingly seedy offers, including death threats from disappointed Germany fans, a Chinese movie called "Kill Paul Octopus," and a bid from a Russian betting firm.

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ISRAEL: Vuvuzela, the horn of plenty -- and other World Cup opportunities


On the right side of the time zone for a change -- unlike NBA games that get only the devoutest of fans up in the dead of night -- Israelis are deep in the World Cup. TV sales are up (so were divorce rates last time), the price of beer and munchies reasonable and shopping malls are offering monthlong sales as an escape key for those uninterested in the buzz.

Re the buzz: In Israel too, the vuvuzela is king -- and plenty would gladly see it overthrown.

The first few days had electronics engineers, sound technicians and lay people texting in professional advice to radio shows with different ideas for getting rid of the droning swarm, and Israelis got a crash course in where white noise frequencies reside on the spectrum and how to filter them. We're not giving in to the vuvuzelas, announced Saadia Karavani, head of the sound division at the Israel Broadcasting Authority on the radio last week.  The noise level  at the first game came in at 147 decibels. That's like sitting on the tail of a fighter jet at takeoff, said Karavani. A day later, he said, they succeeded in de-buzzing broadcasts by 80% (the Fuhrer can stop ranting now).

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MIDDLE EAST: Soccer fans galore but few winning teams in the Arab world


This year, 32 countries are competing in the most widely viewed sporting event in the world. 

But only one -- Algeria -- is from the Arab world, and in 80 years of World Cup tournaments, only one Middle Eastern country -- Turkey -- has made it to the quarterfinals.

The Middle East is wild about soccer. So why don't more of their national teams make it to the big time?

Some say governments of the region don't contribute enough to the sport.

“In Italy, every kilometer there is another soccer field,” said Davit Manoyan, a player for the Armenian national team. “Here, we have maybe 10 fields in the whole country. It’s a big problem.”

Yet others say facilities don't matter: 

“Football is a lifestyle, it’s a culture,” said Gabriel Meghruni, a former player for the Argentine club, River Plate.

“It doesn’t matter if you have a field or not," he said. "You build a field to play, in the schools, squares, parks, wherever you have enough space and something to kick – that’s all you need. Imagine,  I used to play in the street with a cork. In South America, it is that way: first family, then football. If you don’t play, others discriminate against you. It’s serious.”

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IRAN: Girls soccer team must trade hijabs for hats to compete in Youth Olympics

Iranian women soccer

An Iranian girls soccer team has reason to celebrate after the sport's world regulatory body amended its earlier ban on Islamic headscarves, which would have prevented them from competing in the first-ever Youth Olympic Games in Singapore this summer.

The decision by the International Federation of Football Assn., known as FIFA, has inspired Iran's team, the  deputy head of the country's football federation, Farideh Shojaei, told the Associated Press. "They are determined to practice more and more."

The new compromise ruling says that, although the girls cannot play wearing the headscarf, or hijab, they will be allowed to wear "a cap that covers their heads to the hairline but does not extend below the ears to cover the neck," according to a statement issued by FIFA.

The initial decision to ban all head coverings was based on a 2007 ruling that the hijab violated the federation's governing manual, which states that a player's "basic compulsory equipment" must not have any "political, religious or personal statements."

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