How Iran's 'Boycott Israel' policy affected judokas

Iranian athletes have been barred from facing Israelis since 1979 revolution

Syed Zafar Mehdi   | 29.07.2021
How Iran's 'Boycott Israel' policy affected judokas


During the 2019 world championships in Tokyo, Iran's Saeid Mollaei, then world judo champion, had a dream run. But one step away from the gold medal bout, the "Hulk of Iran" surrendered tamely in the semifinals.

While the result shocked legions of his fans, it was inevitable. Mollaei had been told to forfeit the match against his Belgian opponent in order to avoid the possibility of a summit clash with an Israeli opponent.

The celebrated judoka lost both the match and his dream of winning medals for Iran. He subsequently moved to Germany and then accepted Mongolian citizenship.

Two years later, he was back on the big stage, at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, with a rebranded dream and renewed zeal. Only this time, he wore different colors, representing his adopted country -- Mongolia.

After some superlative performances en route to the finals, Mollaei walked home Tuesday with a silver medal in the 81-kg division, going down to a local Japanese boy in the gold medal clash.

Notably, he dedicated the win not to his birth country or adopted country, but the country he once refused to play against – Israel.

Mollaei's maiden Olympic medal came two years after he left Iran. Interestingly, he trained for the marquee tournament in Israel with top Israeli judokas, including Sagi Muki, the Israeli representative at the Games.

It was Muki that his coaches did not want him to face in the 2019 Judo World Championships, which eventually prompted him to defect. The two athletes became friends after the much-publicized incident, which incidentally is the theme of a new television show being produced by MGM.

Mollaei's defection, while not an isolated case, was unarguably most high-profile as it caught the attention of the global judo body.

Many Iranian athletes have since the 1979 revolution refused to compete against their Israeli counterparts, as the two countries do not recognize each other.

To avoid facing their Israeli opponents in major sports competitions, Iranian athletes have feigned injuries, failed weight tests, or deliberately lost their preceding matches, most often on the instructions of their coaches.

- Judokas at forefront

The boycott of Israel in major sports events has been a defining feature of Iran's sports policy for the past four decades. In all sporting genres, Iranian athletes have either voluntarily opted out or been asked to avoid matches in which they were pitted against Israeli opponents.

Judokas have been at the forefront of this boycott, some apparently under pressure.

One of the earliest cases was at the 2001 World Judo Championships, when Iranian judoka Hamed Malekmohammadi refused to compete against Yoel Razvozov of Israel. Inspired by him, then Asian champion Masoud Akhoundzade also withdrew from a bout against Israeli lightweight Zvi Shafran.

In the 2004 Olympic Games, the sport's ruling body mulled the possibility of sanctions on the entire Iranian judo team after Iran's Arash Miresmaeili, then world judo champion, forfeited his match against an Israeli player.

Miresmaeili, Iran's flag-bearer at the Games and a clear favorite to win the gold, was drawn against Ehud Vaks of Israel in round one of the 66-kilogram category before he dropped out, saying the decision was inspired by his support for Palestine.

The act earned him huge praise from government officials in Tehran as well as monetary rewards. He went on to head the country's judo federation years later.

In 2007, an Iranian judo referee, Ahmad Ksanfandi, made headlines when he refused to officiate Israeli judoka Gal Yekutiel's bout at the Tbilisi Open in Georgia. He was banned from the competition following a complaint.

In 2011, at the Judo World Cup in Tashkent, Iranian judoka Javad Mahjoub became another famous name to throw a match against a German opponent to avoid a faceoff with an Israeli judoka, Or Sasson. A year later, at the 2012 Olympics, he withdrew from the competition after he was told that he might have to face Israeli judoka Arik Zeevi.

Not all Iranian judokas though have been happy with the idea of forfeiting their matches against Israeli opponents. Some did under pressure and eventually had to defect and start new journeys in faraway lands.

Iranian judoka Vahid Sarlak had to forfeit a bout at the 2005 World Judo Championships in Cairo to avoid the possibility of facing an Israeli opponent. He chose not to return home after participating in the 2009 World Championships in the Netherlands.

The likes of Mollaei and Sarlak and many other ambitious athletes saw bleak prospects for themselves in their home country as the specter of a ban on Iran's judo federation always loomed.

- Ban on judo body

Soon after Mollaei's revelation that he was forced by his coaches and Sports Ministry officials to forfeit the bout at the 2009 World Championships, the sports ruling body swung into action in August 2019. It imposed an indefinite ban on Iran's judo team until the policy of not competing against Israeli judokas was abandoned.

The verdict of the International Judo Federation (IJF), however, was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in March this year, after a long fight by Iran. CAS called for a review of the "indefinite ban."

Following the review, the ban was changed into a four-year suspension by the IJF, which is slated to expire on Sept. 17, 2023.

According to the IJF ruling, Iran is barred from competing at global judo events, including world championships, and its officials cannot take part in the IJF's work.

The four-year ban, however, did not affect the Iranian judo team's participation at the Tokyo Olympics, as the team participated under the auspices of the National Olympic Committee, not the national judo federation.

According to sports observers, the climate of uncertainty created by the global sports body's ban has mainly triggered the flight of Iranian judokas and other athletes from their country, who now participate under other countries' flags.

It has also led to the premature end of many promising judoka careers.

"After all, they want to save their careers after investing blood and toil of years in it," said Koroush Azimi, a sports commentator.

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