Iranian judoka boycotts Israeli at Olymics

16/08/2004 Iranian judoka and world champion Arash Mir-Esmaeili was hoping he would not find himself facing Israeli Ehud Vaks in the Olympics. However, yesterday he faced the decision of whether to take on his opponent and thereby recognize Israel, or give up his hopes for Olympic gold and face potential personal sanctions. Mir-Esmaeili chose not to fight Vaks. The decision, however, was not his, but was made in Tehran soon after Thursday’s lottery of the first-round draw. Iranian fans’ disappointment was clear, but Iranian President Mohammed Khatami rushed to praise Mir-Esmaeili, who carried his country’s flag in Friday’s opening ceremonies. „We recognize this hero’s sacrifice. He will go down in Iranian history with honor and pride.” As compensation, Tehran will award him $115,000 that had been set aside had he returned with a gold medal. On Thursday, when Mir-Esmaeili was drawn against Vaks, rumors began to fly that he would opt out of the match. However, in an attempt to evade punishment to athletes who opt out for political considerations, the Iranian delegation chose a different route. Mir-Esmaeili weighed in yesterday morning two kilos over the 66-kg. weight limit in his class. However, the International Judo Federation (IJF) and Olympic officials understood it was a gimmick. It is unrealistic that an experienced athlete would arrive unprepared for a competition for which he trained for years. Judokas eat a special diet prior to major bouts, arriving within the weight limitation while maximizing their muscle mass. Mir-Esmaeili hoped his disqualification on a technicality would save him from embarrassing sanctions, but it is unclear, especially after Iranian media declarations emphasized the real reasons were political. The Iranian Olympic Committee stated: „It is Iranian policy to avoid competition with athletes from the Zionist entity. Mir-Esmaeili acted according to that policy.” The unsurprising Iranian decision brought the political dispute into the international sporting world, which usually ignores distinctions of religious, race or color.

The IJF had not yet decided whether to sanction Mir-Esmaeili alone or the entire Iranian delegation. „We are examining the case very, very seriously,” IJF spokesman Michel Brousse said. BPI-info