Two-time world judo champion Arash Miresmaeili of Iran, the gold medal favorite in the under-66 kg class, forfeited his first-round match against Israeli Ehud Vaks after saying he would not fight an Israeli because he sympathizes with Palestine and doesn't recognize the Israeli 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 Ceremonies, was quoted as telling the Iranian news agency (IRNA).
Miresmaeili showed up for weigh-in Sunday, but was officially withdrawn because he tipped the scales over the featherweight limit, which surprised the International Judo Federation. Judo officials are investigating and considering whether to impose sanctions on Iran. The federation's executive committee met Sunday to discuss the situation, and plans to meet again Monday.
It is not the first time an Iranian judoka has refused to compete against an Israeli. At the 2001 world championships, Mahed Malekmohammdi refused to face Yoel Razvozov and Asian champion Masoud Haji Akhoundzade also pulled out of a match with Israeli lightweight Zvi Shafran.
Vaks 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."
Miresmaeili left the building after weigh-in and was not available to comment.
"The IJF is surprised that such an elite player could not make his weight," said federation spokesman Michel Besson. "Everyone was so professional [Saturday]. Today, we're surprised what happened. We need more information. Perhaps he is hiding something, but we don't know. What I do know is we got an official statement [Saturday] from the Iran president of their judo federation saying the rumors [that it was a political boycott] were not true. If this situation has arisen from a political decision, the IJF will react to it."
Since its 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has refused to recognize Israel's right to exist. There are no records of Iranian athletes competing against Israelis since then.
"It is sad that this would happen in 2004," said Yaron Michaeli, the Israeli press attache. "We like to do fair fight on the floor, and we would have preferred to have our athlete fight against the two-time world champion. We eat together in the village lunchroom, 5,000 people without stamps on our heads saying 'you are from here' or 'you are from there.' Israelis, Iraqis, Syrians, all together. This what happened is against the Olympic ideal."
"As regards the political issue, I just want to say that the IJF wants to promote the values of judo," he said. "Let me remind you what they said in the opening ceremony. We heard [United Nations secretary general] Kofi Annan recalling the Olympic truce. We heard IOC President Jacques Rogge calling for the values of tolerance, solidarity, peace and friendship. These are the values of the IOC, these are the values of judo so we would like these values to be promoted in judo."
Miresmaeili was world champion in 2001 and 2003 and finished fifth at the Sydney Olympics four years ago
Iranian Olympic delegation chairman Nassrollah Sajadi said Miresmaeili should receive a $150,000 reward for withdrawing from the fight against Vaks: "I hope Iran's sporting officials agree to give him the reward which he deserves because he could easily have won a medal," he said.
"We are really sad," Israeli spokesman Michaeli said. "We believe in the Olympic ideal, which is no borders, no politics, just be together and make sport. We are here in Athens for sports, not politics. We have enough politics at home. It's truly a pity."