The concession was made under the threat that Iran would be booted out of the Olympics if it continued boycotting Israeli athletes.
The announcement was made in London by Bahram Afsharzadeh, the chief of the Iranian team in the Olympics. Hours later, however, the Fars news agency said he had never said any such thing and that the Israeli media had invented the quotes. The quotes did not come from the Israeli media, but from Afsharzadeh himself as he spoke to reporters in London.
“We just follow the sportsmanship and play every country,” Afsharzadeh said in English. “We will be truthful to sport.” Iranian officials sometimes speak in English to say things they prefer not to be heard back home.
The clash in news reports back in Iran would seem to indicate that Iran’s position on the Olympics—whatever that position may be—has yet to be broadly accepted by the establishment.
Iranian athletes who drew Israeli opponents dropped out of competitions in both the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. In both cases they pleaded illness.
Olympic rules forbid an athlete to refuse to face another athlete for religious or political reasons, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) chose to look the other way and did not discipline Iran.
This year, however, as patience with the Islamic Republic is rapidly being exhausted, there was less willingness in the IOC to ignore Iran’s rules violations. A few weeks ago, the IOC sent a notice to all countries saying it would not tolerate an athlete dropping out for any reason other than medical and outlining just how it would check any claim of illness or injury.
Officials said that any country refusing to abide by the rules would be expelled from the Games. The athletes from that country would still be permitted to compete, but they would compete as individuals, not under their country’s flag. They would march into the stadium behind the Olympic flag and, if they won any medals, the venue would fly the Olympic flag and play the Olympic anthem in place of their national flag and anthem.
The concession announced by Afsharzadeh is a major one and shows that Iran responds to pressure, despite its repeated claims that pressure will just make it adhere even more strongly to its position. But the denials of any change in policy suggests that Afsharzadeh’s concession was not cleared throughout the Islamic Republic’s establishment and may not hold.
There has been strong opposition to the boycott of Israeli athletes by many in Iran, especially in the athletic community, of which Afsharzadeh is a part. Critics point out that when an Iranian athlete refuses to face an Israeli in a face-to-face competition, the Israeli automatically wins and the Iranian automatically loses—hardly a benefit to the Islamic Republic.
Two years ago, in the Winter Olympics held in British Columbia, the Iranian team quietly ignored the Iranian boycott rule. It isn’t known if the Iranian Olympic Committee decided that on its own or whether it had permission from higher up in the regime. But an alert reporter noted an Iranian ski jumper going down the slope just in front of an Israeli and reported the change to the world. Iran was silent. Then, several weeks after the Olympics, when an Iranian swimmer drew an Israeli opponent in the same heat, the Iranian bowed out and the boycott was back in effect.
In announcing the end of the boycott in London, Afsharzadeh was the vision of a cooperative diplomacy. For example, he said Iran would “respect” any moment of silence held to honor the 11 Israelis murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics. “Everything from the IOC we respect,” he said.
He ignored Iran’s sour relations with Britain since the Islamic Republic allowed a mob to overrun the British embassy in Tehran last November and had nothing but nice things to say about Britain. “Everything about the country is very, very fantastic and everything is really normal,” he said.
“In sport and in Olympics, all the countries must [be] together with the teams in friendship,” he said in his patchy English. “Solidarity for all the countries is very important.”
Iran has qualified 54 athletes in 14 events for this year’s Olympiad and is widely expected to have its best year ever on the medal front. The Associated Press has predicted that Iranians will win 14 medals—eight golds, three silvers and three bronze medals. If that projection proves sound, it will shatter all previous records. Iran has never before won more than seven medals—and that haul was way back in the 1952 Olympics. In the last Olympics in 2008, Iran won only a single gold and a single bronze.
This year, the AP projects five Iranian medals in freestyle wrestling, four in Greco-Roman, three in weightlifting and two in taekwondo. The four in Greco-Roman would be a dramatic improvement. Iran has won only two Greco-Roman medals since going to its first Olympics in 1948.
Over the decades, Iran has won a total of 48 medals—30 in freestyle wrestling, two in Greco-Roman, 12 in weightlifting and four in taekwondo.
The medal winners will profit personally. Like many countries, Iran makes cash payments to its medal winners. And President Ahmadi-nejad announced as he saw the athletes off to London that he had ordered the cash payments doubled this year. He said the athletes “have worked hard and deserve more for the work they do.”
Iran will not get a crack at any medals in judo, however. It qualified two judo athletes, but one injured his knee in practice and the other just came down with an intestinal ailment, so neither judoka will be able to compete.
Iran has still not publicly announced its rules for Ramadan observance by its athletes. The silence suggests the athletes are being excused from the fast. London’s northern latitude means the sunrise-to-sundown fast lasts much longer there than in Iran. Today, for example, the fast in London is 18-1/2 hours long, from 2:39 a.m. to 9:06 p.m.
Religious authorities in other countries have issued varying edicts. Some athletes have said they will abide by the fast; others have said they will ignore it. Some say they will fast for a month after the Olympics end; other say they will break the fast and pay what some authorities prescribe as religious penance: feeding 60 poor people.
The Olympics will run from July 27 through August 12.