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On Politics, IOC Won't Carry the Flag

By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, August 18, 2004; Page D07


Pericles said, "Acts deserve acts, not words, in their honor." By now, you may have noticed my penchant for quoting dead people, especially ones who've been in the ground for 2,400 years. That's because someone has to do the talking around here, and at the moment we can get neither words nor acts from the International Olympic Committee, which is determinedly ignoring the outrage perpetrated by Iranian officialdom on the Athens Games.

Apparently, the IOC is concerned only with ceremony, not with words and acts. The other day, Iranian judo champion Arash Miresmaeili refused to compete against an Israeli athlete. According to his government, Miresmaeili, the world judo champion in 2001 and 2003 who carried the Iranian flag at Friday's Opening Ceremonies, would not fight Israel's Ehud Vaks because his country doesn't recognize the Jewish state and has banned any contact with it. Now, with this stance the Iranian delegation violated the most critical and central tenant of the Olympic charter, which is the neutrality of sportsmanship. But the IOC has refused to address the incident, because, they say, it's technically not their affair.

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"This issue hasn't actually come to our level," Giselle Davies, a spokeswoman for the IOC, told The Post's Craig Whitlock on Monday. "At present, the IOC is not involved."

The IOC is falling back on the time-tested cover it always employs when it wants to smother a controversy: protocol. Officials contend the incident is more properly the business of the International Judo Federation, because Miresmaeili failed to make weight for the match, causing some confusion. The judo federation has opened a formal investigation into Miresmaeili's no-show that could lead to sanctions.

From one standpoint, the IOC's inaction is understandable. Even executive committee member Alex Gilady, an Israeli, maintained that the controversy is out of the IOC's hands because, "according to the competition rules because he was overweight at the last minute. How did they make him overweight, that is another issue."

Gilady also said the Games are better served by peaceful continuation of the competition than by taking on Iranian leaders in a highly politicized fight. "I'm not going to do anything about it," he said. "I hope that we will continue to spread the opposite of what they are spreading." He added: "I don't have anger. I just hope there will be a day when it won't happen and that is what we are working toward. I think the Olympics is winning the case, because these incidents are becoming fewer and fewer."

But that's not nearly good enough, and here's why: because to say this hasn't "reached the IOC level" is to suggest that it was unimportant. Silence is a statement, too, and in this case the IOC's silence is screaming, compared to the statements by Iranian leaders.

Iranian officials have made it perfectly clear that Miresmaeili did not compete because he would not fight an Israeli. In a series of truculent statements, they've left no question about this. Iranian President Mohammad Khatami told a state news agency Miresmaeili would be "recorded in the history of Iranian glories" and declared him Iran's "champion of the 2004 Olympic Games." A government spokesman said other Iranian athletes are expected to do the same if confronted with an Israeli opponent. Iranian Olympic team chairman Nassrollah Sajadi told the Sharq newspaper that the government should give the athlete a $115,000 bonus.

(This is what Pericles derisively called "state-sponsored courage.")

The IOC has all the evidence it needs that this issue rises to its "level": a patent admission by the chairman of the Iranian athletic delegation that the withdrawal was political. The only question is whether Miresmaeili defaulted from the match of his own volition, or because his federation and government forced him to. Even Gilady acknowledges outright that the weight issue is a sham. "This is the world champion and he was probably devastated that because of politics he is not competing."

The problem with the IOC's silence is that it appears to have plenty of words and actions when it comes to other easier matters, such as stroking sponsors, but not for actually protecting the soul of the Games. This week, IOC president Jacques Rogge had time to promote McDonald's. He went on effusively about how the Games wouldn't be possible without sponsors. Actually, the Games would go on without Mickey D's. But if athletes start deciding they'll only play some countries but not others, the Games will disintegrate overnight.

Here is what the IOC must do: It should strip all Iranian officials of their credentials here, and send them home. It should tell all Iranian athletes, "You are welcome to stay here and compete, so long as you obey the Olympic charter. Here is your flag: It's the IOC flag, and you may march under it at the Closing Ceremonies."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company