TEHRAN — The Olympics are supposed to be a time when nations put aside their differences, no matter how large, and square off on the playing field for some intense yet friendly competition.
But for Iran and Israel, two countries that have each been on edge with anxiety about the other’s actions and intentions this summer, it appears that’s not going to happen.
Although Iran asserted Monday that its athletes would compete against Israelis in the 2012 Games, its team had left for London hours earlier without the one athlete who had the possibility of facing an Israeli opponent.
On Sunday, Iranian authorities announced that that athlete, Javad Mahjoub, a judo champion, was suffering from a “critical digestive system infection,” forcing him to take antibiotics and cancel plans for the Games, which begin Friday.
Mahjoub’s absence has led to speculation that Iran is maintaining its long-standing policy of not allowing its athletes to compete with Israeli opponents.
Mahjoub himself has acknowledged going to great lengths to keep from squaring off against an Israeli. In a 2011 interview with the Iranian newspaper Shargh, Mahjoub admitted to throwing a match against a German opponent, saying: “If I won, I would have had to compete with an Israeli athlete. And if I refused to compete with the Israeli, they would have suspended our judo federation for four years.”
Israel’s judoka in the 100-kilogram weight class, Ariel “Arik” Ze’evi, will be competing in his fourth Olympic Games. The 35-year-old won a bronze medal at the 2004 Games in Athens and is widely considered to hold one of Israel’s best chances of taking home a medal in London.
Ze’evi told the Associated Press last month that he did not understand athletes who bring politics into the sporting arena. “When you are doing judo, football, basketball, you have to show up on the field, do your best. It doesn’t matter who you fight,” Ze’evi said. “For me, I don’t have any problem to fight against a sportsman from any country, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria. . . . I really don’t understand it.”
Iran has had a stated policy for years of avoiding competition with Israeli athletes. In 2004 and 2008, athletes cited injuries in withdrawing from events in which they would have had to face Israelis.
International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge declared last month that those days are over. Beginning in London, he said, those who sit out events based on their opponents’ race, ethnicity or nationality will be punished.
“If Nation A does not appear at the competition against Nation B, we will ask for explanations,” Rogge said. “If the explanation is not satisfactory and valid at the end of it and is not credible, then we will go into cross-examination by an independent medical board. And if the medical board says it is not a genuine reason, then sanctions will be taken. That is quite clear.”
Days after the IOC announcement, Iranian Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs Mohammad Abbasi told the Islamic Republic News Agency that “not competing with Zionist athletes is one of the values and sources of pride of the Iranian people and its athletes.”
On Monday, Iran chief of mission Bahram Afsharzadeh told the Associated Press that the country’s athletes would compete against Israelis. But it was not clear how that could happen with Mahjoub still in Iran.
It is unclear whether the IOC will look into Mahjoub’s absence.