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COLUMNISTS

Mon, August 16, 2004

Real story? Politics


Arash Miresmaeili carried the flag of his country proudly in the Olympic opening ceremony.

He marched with the athletes, listened to the lyrical speeches about uniting the athletes of the world, heard the oaths, and understood the expectations of being a gold medal favourite.

And then he took the money and ran -- because really he had no choice.

The statistics will say that Miresmaeili did not make his weight and therefore did not participate in the Olympic Games. The statistics lie.

The real story is about Middle Eastern politics and a conflict that never seems to end and all that should have little to do with either sport or these Games. But the real story is that Iranian authorities will pay Miraesmaeili a significant sum of money -- hundreds of thousands of dollars in fact --for his apparent refusal to fight an Israeli opponent in judo yesterday at the Ano Liossia Olympic Hall.

This is the second scandal of a Games that are only two days old, an athletic disgrace of politics that has no place on this stage. "I feel sorry for him," said Ehud Vaks, the Israeli judoka who was awarded a win over his Iranian non-opponent and then wound up being eliminated from the Games one bout later.

"No athlete I know would do this," he told the Toronto Sun. "I feel for him as an athlete. An athlete would want to go to the mat. He would want to compete.

"They put him up to this. They make him do this."

Miraesmaeili was Sports Illustrated's choice to win gold in the event. Vaks was nobody's choice to win much of anything. The Iranian was supposed to be a hero here. At home, where hatred seems the national pastime, perhaps he will be.

"This is a brutal violation of the Olympic values," said Ephraim Zinger, head of the Israeli Olympic delegation. "This is not why we are here. We want to believe we are all united under the Olympic flag. For this athlete, this is a dark day, and a dark day for the Olympic Games.

"But you must also understand, he has to follow the rules (of his country). He has to return home after the Games and live there."

Give the Iranians some credit for how they managed this mess. Once the draw came out, it was expected that Miraesmaeili would withdraw rather than fight an Israeli. He even told an Iranian news agency that he was taking this stance in view of his support of Palestine.

But had he simply withdrawn, he would have been sanctioned by the International Judo Federation. Because he didn't make weight -- although no one knew exactly what he weighed -- the IJF have no recourse but to penalize him.

'THE RIGHT CONCLUSION'

"I hope the judo federation realizes what happened here and reacts appropriately," said Zinger. "I hope they reach the right conclusion.

"We were certain when we saw the draw that would not show up. The only question mark we had was: What would be the excuse? Illness? Overweight? Headache? We didn't know ... This is not the first time this has happened in an international arena."

IJF spokesman Michel Brousse said he was surprised by Miraesmaeili's failure to weight. And if he was, he was only one in the building surprised.

At the world table tennis championships in 2003, competitors from Yemen and Saudi Arabia refused to play against Israeli opponents. One athlete was suspended for a year by his sport and returned home to a national hero's welcome.

The government of Iran had promised one million rial to any of gold medal athletes -- no Iranian has ever won gold before. Some government officials have already gone on the record as saying Miresmaeili should be paid gold medal money for pulling out.

For the Israeli delegation, this is yet another setback. At some point, they would hope that sport could be sport and political sentiments could be removed from the playing fields. The athletes themselves want to believe that.

"We have to be optimistic. What choice do we have?" said Zinger. "We have to hope one day this will end. We don't know when. We continue to hope."


Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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