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Tennis News

EXCLUSIVE-Tennis-Boycott fears led to UAE U-turn, says WTA chief

LONDON, Feb 19 (Reuters) - The threat of an international sporting boycott led to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) backing down on its stance of denying Israeli athletes into the country, WTA chief Larry Scott said on Thursday.

Five days after Shahar Peer was barred from competing at the women’s Dubai Championships, her fellow Israeli Andy Ram was granted a visa to play in the men’s equivalent next week.

Scott said he had been assured all Israeli athletes would be given “a special permit” by the UAE government to enter the country if they have qualified for a tournament.

“They had no idea of the international condemnation and the ripple effects, not just in the world of sport but beyond ... that they were starting to feel, in the worlds of business, arts, culture,” Scott told Reuters in an interview.

“I had been in touch with heads of several other sports and people in the Olympic movement and there was shock and dismay over this decision and real concern as to what the implications would be.

“I know certain organisations called for a sporting boycott or suspension of all sporting activities in the UAE until this policy was changed. So there were potential ramifications for all other sports.”

While Scott declined to say which governing bodies he had been in touch with, the UAE hosts a series of high profile sporting events including the Dubai Desert Classic golf tournament while Abu Dhabi is set to stage its first Formula One race later this year.

The UAE, like most Arab countries, has no diplomatic ties with Israel and routinely denies entry to Israelis.

Tensions have been heightened after the three-week Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip, which killed some 1,300 Palestinians and 14 Israelis. Although the conflict ended in January it caused deep anger around the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The refusal to issue a visa to Peer violated WTA Tour rules, which state any player should be able to compete where she wishes if she has the required ranking.

SILVER LINING

“A lot of people thought it wasn’t going to be possible to get the policy changed,” said Scott. “I’m glad some silver lining will come out of Shahar’s sacrifice.

“It’s been a very painful experience for Shahar and beyond comprehension we had to go through what we went through the last week, and that a player had to suffer this way to cause the tournament and the UAE government to change its policy.

“It demonstrates this was in their control last week as well.”

Despite the U-turn by UAE authorities on Thursday, Scott said there were still no guarantees the tournament would be back on the 2010 calendar.

“The fact they fixed their policy going forward doesn’t make it okay what happened last week and those issues need to be addressed,” said Scott, who has called a board meeting on Friday to discuss possible punishments.

“There will still be very significant sanctions on the tournament for denying a player ... entry for no good reason.

“Despite the statement from the government today there are still various assurances and measures we have to be satisfied with before we would put the Dubai tournament on our 2010 calendar.

“From this episode we’ve learned there is a lot of work to be done around the world.

“While we hope sport will be a unifying force for humanity, separate from politics, there are still some instances where there is a temptation to use sports as a political tool and that must be resisted and defended.”

Editing by Tony Jimenez

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