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Judoka Praised by Iranian Government

Miresmaeili Called 'Champion' of Games

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 17, 2004; Page D07

ATHENS, Aug. 16 -- The Iranian government on Monday praised a member of its judo team for avoiding a match with an Israeli opponent, saying it was firmly opposed to any of its athletes competing against "the Zionist regime" during the Olympics or other international events.

The International Judo Federation said it would open a formal investigation that could lead to possible sanctions against the Iranian squad. Officials with the International Olympic Committee resisted calls to address the controversy, declining to say whether the entire Iranian team could be penalized for its policy of refusing to compete for political reasons.

Iran's Arash Miresmaeili , here carrying flag in Opening Ceremonies, said was showing solidarity for Palestinians. (Hasan Sarbakhshian -- AP)

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"This issue hasn't actually come to our level," said Giselle Davies, a spokeswoman for the IOC, which has the authority to bar nations from participating. "The federation says it is investigating. At present, the IOC is not involved."

The political spat began Sunday, when former world champion Arash Miresmaeili showed up more than four pounds overweight for his scheduled judo match against an Israeli, Ehud Vaks. The Iranian athlete, who was heavily favored and considered a contender to win a gold medal, was disqualified on technical grounds but had been quoted previously as saying he might pull out of the match because his opponent was from Israel.

Judo officials at first said they were surprised that Miresmaeili -- the flag bearer for Iran during the Opening Ceremonies -- would fail to make his weight but added they had no proof that politics were involved. But Iranian leaders at the highest levels of the government in Tehran soon made clear that politics were indeed at the heart of the case.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was quoted by the state news agency as saying that Miresmaeili's actions would be "recorded in the history of Iranian glories" and declared that the nation considered him to be "the champion of the 2004 Olympic Games." Iranian Olympic team chairman Nassrollah Sajadi told the Sharq newspaper that the government should give the athlete a $115,000 bonus.

On Monday, a government spokesman said other Iranian athletes would be expected to do the same if confronted with an Israeli opponent. Iran does not recognize the existence of the Israeli state.

"Our policy is not to recognize the Zionist regime in any international event," the spokesman, Abdullah Ramazanzadeh, said at a news conference in Tehran. "We cannot accept the presence of anyone in international events under the flag of that regime."

Miresmaeili has given different accounts of whether he voluntarily withdrew or if he was ordered to report overweight. The Iranian news agency quoted him as saying, "Although I have trained for months and am in shape, I refused to face my Israeli rival in sympathy with the oppressed Palestinian people."

During the Opening Ceremonies on Friday, the Israeli team received a tepid reception from the 77,000 spectators. In contrast, the much smaller Palestinian team strolled around the stadium to rousing cheers.

Eddy Koaz, the chief of Israel's judo governing body, called on international judo officials to penalize Iran for refusing to compete. "We cannot let them just do it, because if they do it and nothing happens, other countries will do it again," he told Reuters.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, faxed a letter to IOC officials demanding that they take action as well.

"If the integrity of the Olympics is going to remain intact for future generations, the IOC must act," he said in a telephone interview. "This was clearly orchestrated and is the opinion of the government of Iran. It has to be nipped in the bud. Other nations are waiting to see how the IOC acts."

Michel Brousse, a spokesman for the International Judo Federation, said the panel's executive committee would conduct a formal investigation. He said the group had received conflicting information from Iranian athletic officials about whether Miresmaeili had botched his weight test on purpose.

"It is important to know if he was overweight intentionally or accidentally," Brousse said. "Everybody is innocent until proven guilty. We have to make sure it was not accidental."

"We are studying this case very seriously," Brousse added. "No discrimination -- not racial, not political, not religious -- can be tolerated. This is clear."

Vax, the Israeli judo contender, received a bye in the competition after his Iranian opponent defaulted. He lost in the second round, losing to a Muslim from Algeria.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company