In early December, 2017, Alireza Karimi (aka Alireza Karimimachiani) was competing for Iran at the U-23 World Championships in Poland. Karimi made it to the second round in the 86 kg category, where he faced Alikhan Zhabrailov of Russia.
Karimi was leading Zhabrailov by a score of 3-2 with just a minute left. However, after his coaches discovered that if Karimi won the match he would face Uri Kalashnikov (of Israel) in the next round they called a timeout.
Karimi’s coaches ordered the young wrestler, who is a two-time gold medal winner at the Asia Championships, to lose the match. A visibly distraught Karimi then let his opponent take him down and roll him to secure a 14-3 technical superiority victory.
Iranian wrestler Alireza Karimi about to beat Russian, but will have to face Israeli next round. His coach his calling him from the sidelines, telling him to “lose.” Iran forbids its athletes to play Israeli’s. Iranian wrestler gives up. pic.twitter.com/nX9KHaH8Jn
— Thomas Erdbrink (@ThomasErdbrink) November 27, 2017
The reason Karimi’s coaches did not want him to face an Israeli is because Iran has an unofficial, but rigidly enforced, policy of avoiding or refusing to compete against Israel in both team and individual sports. The de facto ban is a result of Iran’s refusal to recognize Israel as a sovereign state (preferring instead to consider it an illegal occupier of Palestine).
After he was eliminated Karimi was surprisingly candid about the situation when talking to the semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA). NPR quoted Karaimi from that source saying, “my whole world seemed to come to an end” when he was told he had to lose. “I tried hard for months to get the world gold medal. Achieving a world medal is the only happiness for any of us.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised Karimi for throwing the bout. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also responded to the situation; saluting Karimi for his seeming desire to compete against an Israeli. Netanyahu also used the incident for a propaganda stunt, asking Israelis to tweet him images of them playing sports with people from different backgrounds.
According to the BBC Karimi received a six months ban for throwing the match.
In response to this situation Rasoul Khadem, an Olympic gold medalist, has stepped down from his post as head of Iran’s wrestling federation. He was elected to that position just two months ago.
The BBC reports that earlier this month Khadem criticized Iranian authorities for forcing athletes to avoid competing against Israelis. In those comments he called for a “fundamental solution” to set things right.
“Forcing an athlete to accept defeat or run around all night looking for a doctor’s note is not right,” said Khadem.
Some analysts believe Khadem may have been forced out of his role, judging by a cryptic message he left on the Iranian Wrestling Federation website.
According to ISNA the councils for freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling in Iran announced they would be resigning along with Khadem. “Khadem has sacrificed himself for wrestling and since he has stepped down, there is no point for us to remain in our post,” said former committee member Hossein Marashian.
Wrestling has been used by Iran in the past to improve relations with foreign nations. Bloody Elbow’s Karim Zidan wrote about how Iran and the US stabilized their relations, through wrestling, in the 1990s. Though, Zidan writes, that progress risks being undone by the policies of current US President Donald Trump.
Unfortunately it seems unlikely that wrestling will form an olive branch between Iran and Israel any time soon.
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