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Israeli Athlete Booed at Qatar Swimming Competition

Israeli swimmer Anastasia Gorbenko was booed and heckled by sections of the crowd at the Doha World Championships after finishing runner-up in the women’s 400-meter individual medley on Sunday.

Gorbenko’s celebrations were spoiled as a chorus of boos rained down from the terraces, drowning out her post-race interview by the floor presenter.

The jeers continued as Gorbenko left the Aspire Dome pool, and she was booed again at the medals ceremony though there was also applause.

Briton Freya Constance Colbert won the race. Gorbenko was the first Israeli to win a medal in the event.

Qatar and Israel do not have diplomatic relations. But in 2022, the two nations cooperated to allow Israeli visitors to attend the World Cup soccer tournament, including allowing the first-ever direct charter flights from Ben Gurion Airport to Doha.

Israeli athletes have also competed multiple times in the Gulf country, a leading patron of Hamas and a host to its leaders. Qatar played a key role in negotiating the November release of 105 hostages held by terror groups in Gaza, and is a key mediator in current talks aimed at releasing the remaining abductees and negotiating a lengthy pause in fighting.

The presence of Israeli swimmers at the championships drew criticism from some Doha media outlets and pro-Palestinian groups amid Israel’s military campaign in Gaza in response to Hamas’s devastating October 7 onslaught when thousands of terrorists rampaged across southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking 253 hostages.

Gorbenko smiled when she mounted the podium and sighed during the mix of boos and cheers from spectators. She later said it was not the first time she had been jeered at the event.

“I’ve been here a week, I heard all these noises but I’m with earplugs. I’m in my zone. I’m here to do what I love to do, which is sports,” she told reporters.

“I’m here to represent my country… And I’m doing this with the Israeli flag and I’m proud of that. And whoever doesn’t like it, it’s just not my problem.”

Swimming’s global governing body World Aquatics did not provide immediate comment.

Gorbenko said she had no hesitation about mounting the podium but the booing had impacted her during the week.

“There was no way I was going to miss (the podium) just because some little kids are going to do whatever they want to,” she added.

“It’s just sport. I think sports and politics should be separated. But it does affect me emotionally, it’s been a long week for me. I expected myself to do better than I did.

“So to be able to stand on the podium at the end of the week means a lot to me as an athlete and gives me a confidence boost in this Olympic year.”

She said she would not hesitate to swim at future events in Arab countries.

“At the end of the day, Israel is in the Middle East as well; I hope one day we’ll be able to make some peace with everyone.”

Despite the negative reception, she said she felt totally safe during her stay in Qatar. “We have a lot of security around us at all times, both Israeli and Qatari, so safety is the first thing that they consider before coming here.”

Gorbenko, whose parents are Ukrainian, was born and raised in Israel. She said she had relatives in Ukraine and was concerned for them during the country’s war with Russia.

“I have relatives in Ukraine. Of course, it’s hard as well. But there’s nothing I can do,” she said.

“Whatever I can do is do my best in the swimming pool and support my country and my family this way.”

In an interview later with Channel 12, Gorbenko dedicated her medal to a childhood friend, Matan Angrest, who is among the 130 hostages taken from Israel on October 7 and being held in the Gaza Strip.