It wasn’t clear why Abbasi declared Iran’s refusal to have its sportsmen face Israelis publicly. Iran declared the policy publicly decades ago, but then shifted to silence after many nations objected strongly. Since then, Iranian athletes who have withdrawn from facing Israelis have always told Olympic officials they were ill.
Olympic rules forbid athletes to refuse to face other athletes for political or religious reasons.
According to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), the state-owned news outlet, Abbasi said Friday that Iranian athletes would not face Israelis because the Islamic Republic “does not recognize the legitimacy of the forged Zionist regime.”
Abbasi told IRNA, “Not competing with Zionist athletes is one of the values and sources of pride of the Iranian people and its athletes.”
Abbasi spoke out just days after Jacques Rogge, the Belgian national who is chairman of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), warned that any refusal by an athlete to compete for other than medical reasons would be punished. He did not say what the punishment would be and left unclear whether the boycotting athlete or the boycotting government would be punished. He said only: “Sanctions will be taken.” (See last week’s Iran Times, page ten.)
The boycotting athlete is generally punished by his or her withdrawal since the athlete then loses the opportunity to advance and win a medal. Olympic managers have understood that Iran forbids athletes to face Israelis and have been reluctant to expel the Iranian team from competitions, reasoning that an expulsion would punish all the Iranian athletes rather than the Iranian government.
But Abbasi’s public announcement may change the picture. He has chosen to set up a confrontation with the IOC. It will be difficult for the IOC to ignore a public declaration by an Iranian cabinet minister that the Iranian government is choosing to violate an Olympic policy that it is pledged to uphold by its membership in the IOC.
It is not clear what disciplinary options the IOC would have other than to expel Iran from the Olympics. The IOC might tell Iran in advance that it will expel the Iranian team if any Iranian athlete fails to face an Israeli competitor. That would avoid any confrontation if Iranian sportsmen went through the Olympics without drawing any Israeli opponents. However, in the two most recent summer Olympics, in 2004 and 2008, Iranians drew Israeli opponents both times and bowed out complaining of illness.
Such an advance notification would have the benefit for the IOC and for Iran of clarity, and would put the burden for expulsion on Iran. Rogge’s vague comments earlier this month about some kind of unspecified punishment leaves Iran in doubt about what will happen.
For Iran, the single most important event at the Olympics is wrestling. This year, no Israeli qualified at any weight division in either freestyle or Greco-Roman wrestling, so the Islamic Republic need not fear any confrontation in the sport that has the most visibility within Iran.