the latest of many instances in which the Islamic Republic has forced athletes to drop out of competitions when they draw Israeli opponents.
For Mohammad Ali-Rezaei, one of Iran’s most successful swimmers, it was the second time he was forced to lose by the state.
Israeli sports officials, who once expressed disdain and disgust for Iran when it did this, instead expressed disappointment and sympathy for Ali-Rezaei, whom they now see as the victim rather than the tool of Iran’s anti-Israel policies.
Ali-Rezaei did not start a heat that also featured Gal Nevo of Israel in the 100-meter breaststroke of the World Aquatics Championships Sunday.
Three years ago, Ali-Rezaei was in the Olympics when he drew Israeli Tom Be’eri as an opponent in an opening heat.
Both times, Ali-Rezaei reported he was ill and withdrew. Athletes are forbidden to withdraw from international events for other than health reasons and may be banned from the sport if they do so. That rule is a response to some instances decades ago of athletes boycotting a competitor because of race.
Iran has had the ban on competing against Israelis for decades. In the 2010 Winter Olympics in Canada, however, Iranians did compete against Israelis. It appears that some officials in Tehran decided the rule was self-defeating and allowed the Iranian athletes to go ahead even when they drew Israeli opponents. But a Western reporter who knew the Iranian rule saw what was happening and drew attention to the change. That presumably raised the ire of ultra-rightists in Tehran. The ban was swiftly re-imposed.
At the swimming meet in Shanghai, Yitzhak Kramer, the head of the Israeli delegation, told The Associated Press, “It’s crazy. This competition is about sport, not politics, and you need to separate the two. That’s what is supposed to be nice about sport.”
FINA, the governing body of international swimming events, said it was not aware of what happened. “We have to understand the situation first,” said FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu. “If this is the case, there’s no point in coming to the world championships. We don’t need these politics in our sport.” International federations of sports have shown little interest in enforcing their rules, however. No federation has ever acted when an Iranian athlete has withdrawn.
In the past, the Israelis have sputtered and denounced the federations. But this time, the Israelis said they were not seeking any punishment. “We don’t ask. If someone wants to behave like a child we don’t care,” Kramer said.
Ali-Rezaei was the only athlete in the 83-man field who did not start. Nevo, the Israeli swimmer, finished 45th and did not qualify for the semifinals.
Ali-Rezaei, who turned 26 Wednesday, has won the gold medal in the 50-meter breaststroke at the 2007 Asian Indoor Games and the bronze in the 4×50-meter medley relay at the 2009 Asian Indoor Games.