This past Saturday, wrestling fans watched in sheer disbelief as Iran once again disgraced itself in the arena of international sport. Iranian freestyle wrestler Alireza Karimi-Machiani paired up against his Russian opponent in the 86kg category of the Senior U23 World Championship in Poland. Going into the fourth minute of the competition, the Iranian led the Russian 3-2. At this point, Karimi-Machiani’s coach began yelling from the sidelines, “Ali bebaaz,” which translated to “Ali, you must lose.” Karimi-Machiani paused during the bout to briefly confer with his trainer and appeared hesitant and confused but ultimately capitulated to his trainer’s dictates, losing by a humiliating 3-14.
Losing is an anathema to highly competitive professional athletes who relentlessly train to win. Occasionally, corrupt athletes and their coaches will deliberately throw a match for pecuniary gain. In the instant case, the deliberate loss orchestrated by the Iranian coach carried with it far more pernicious overtones, ones laced with antisemitism and racism. Had Karimi-Machiani emerged victorious, he would have had to face Uri Kalashnikov, an Israeli. The loss was thus a deliberate attempt to circumvent a competitive event due to an athlete’s nationality. Such conduct fundamentally undermines both the purpose and spirit of international sporting events.
The behavior exhibited by the Iranian team represented the zenith of unsportsmanlike conduct, even for a nation prone to disgracing itself in the public arena. Karimi-Machiani could have done the principled thing and disregarded his trainer’s nefarious instructions, though this would have almost certainly resulted in the end of his wrestling career in the Islamic Republic and would have quite possibly landed him in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison – where rape and torture by prison guards are the norm – on some contrived charge.
The event triggered a firestorm among Iranians on social media with most voicing contempt and criticism for the coach and the Islamic Republic’s mullahs. Many expressed sympathy for Karimi-Machiani’s untenable situation though some nevertheless voiced criticism over his failure to defy his coach.
This isn’t the first time the Iranians displayed such outrageous conduct. In August 2016, an Iranian wrestling coach was caught on hot mic instructing his wrestler to place ice on his hand and fake an injury to avoid competing against an Israeli. The event was filmed at the World Youth Championships in Hungary. The coach warned the boy that if he competed, he would be removed from the team and his career would be finished. After tearful protest, the boy reluctantly complied.
The instant event comes on the heels of the Abu Dhabi Judo Grand Slam tournament fiasco where Emirate officials attempted to make life unbearable for the Israeli team. They first tried to prevent the team from competing by imposing visa impediments. The team overcame those hurdles only to endure further humiliation by their Muslim hosts.
Muslim officials refused to allow the Israelis to display their national flag on their uniforms. Moreover, Israelis who medaled were subjected to further indignities and forced to watch as the the flag of the International Judo Federation was unfurled in lieu of the Blue and White. In one particularly bizarre spectacle, Tal Flicker, who captured the gold, listened with a combination of contempt and disgust as the Israeli national anthem was substituted with the IJF’s anthem on orders of Abu Dhabi officials.
The Israeli team’s strong showing at Abu Dhabi – 1 gold and 4 bronze – exposed the Emirate nation’s absurd xenophobic policies for the world to see. Embarrassed Muslim officials apologized to the Israeli team for the way they were treated. The apology may also have been prompted by prodding from IJF president Marius Vizer, who was outspoken in his support for the Israeli team.
Though the apology was an encouraging development, it comes woefully short of addressing the systemic problematic behavior exhibited by Arab nations and some non-Arab, Muslim nations – chiefly Iran – when competing against Israeli athletes in international forums. It has become routine for Arab and Iranian athletes to fake illness or otherwise forfeit matches against Israelis. On other occasions, Arab athletes have refused to shake hands with Israelis upon completion of a match. The incident involving Egyptian Judoka Islam El Shehaby at the 2016 Rio Games can be counted as among the most notorious of these. El Shehaby was soundly defeated by Israel’s Or Sasson but refused to bow or shake Sasson’s outstretched hand, prompting booing from the audience.
The time has come for firm action by international sporting officials. Muslim nations that refuse to host Israelis or otherwise treat them disparately should be disallowed from hosting any international sporting event. Moreover, Iran which has demonstrated the most egregious behavior and is a serial offender should be permanently banned from all international sporting events until it demonstrates a drastic change in its infantile and malevolent behavior. It is a harsh sanction but one that is certainly warranted under the circumstances.
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