Iranian refuses to fight Israeli at Olympics

By Aaron Klein

Iran’s world judo champion Arash Miresmaeili refused to compete against an Israeli athlete yesterday, saying he would not fight a “Zionist” and that he sympathizes with the Palestinian cause and doesn’t recognize the Jewish state.

“Although I have trained for months and was in good shape I refused to fight my Israeli opponent to sympathize with the suffering of the people of Palestine and I do not feel upset at all,” Miresmaeili, the Iranian flag bearer at the opening ceremony, was quoted as telling the Iranian news agency.

The statements triggered a crisis at the Olympic Games where race is not allowed to interfere with the sports.

The International Judo Federation failed to decide how to deal with the politically explosive issue at an emergency meeting and said it would hold further talks on Monday. The debate was whether any penalty would hit Miresmaeili alone or the entire Iranian team.

“There has been no decision and we are considering this situation very carefully,” said IJF spokesman Michel Brousse. “This has not been brought to us as an issue and until it is, we would not have any comment,” said a spokeswoman for the International Olympic Committee, which pledges to uphold the ideal of sport transcending national barriers.

Miresmaeili later changed his reason for not fighting to “failure to make the weight cut off,” but judo chiefs were questioning how such a seasoned athlete would have made such a basic error.

A statement by the Iranian National Olympic Committee in Tehran said, “This is a general policy of our country to refrain from competing against athletes of the Zionist regime and Arash Miresmaeili has observed this policy.”

The Israeli athlete, Ehud Vaks, said he was crushed when he heard he would win his first match by forfeit.

“I feel horrible for [Miresmaeili], and I’m sure if it was up to him, he would have fought,” said Vaks, who lost in the second round. “I know what it feels like to lose, and this is worse. The politicians didn’t let him fight. That is not the way I wanted to win. It is not fair to him. He was the favorite. It’s a small world, the judo world, and I admire him as a fighter.”

“They tell me not to talk about politics, but sports is part of politics. He does not have the right not to acknowledge my country. Israel is a democracy, and Iran is not. I feel terrible on a personal level for him, and on a national level, too. We’re all human, all have the same feelings, and I empathize with what he must be going through,” Vaks said.

Tensions between Israel and Iran are particularly high now, with Iranian efforts to build a nuclear reactor reaching a fevered pitch, and Israel conducting military exercises to destroy any reactor should it go critical.