Iranian wrestlers struggle against ideology

Tehran has prohibited Iranian athletes from competing against Israelis internationally.
Sunday 22/04/2018
A 2016 file picture shows US’s J’den Michael Tbory Cox (L) wrestling with Iran’s Alireza Mohammad Karimi Mashiani at the Carioca Arena 2 in Rio de Janeiro. (AFP)
Ideology trumps all. A 2016 file picture shows US’s J’den Michael Tbory Cox (L) wrestling with Iran’s Alireza Mohammad Karimi Mashiani in Rio de Janeiro. (AFP)

Iran and Israel are engaged in a regional struggle for power but the regime in Tehran is simultaneously wrestling with an opponent more formidable than Israel: Iranian wrestlers.

Iran does not recognise the state of Israel so the regime in Tehran has prohibited Iranian athletes from competing against Israelis internationally. This has caused problems for Iranian athletes, who end up forfeiting medals and career opportunities. All of these are forcibly sacrificed for the sake of the Iranian regime’s ideology.

This has prompted unexpected innovations on the part of Iranian athletes. In the quarterfinal of the U23 World Wrestling Championship in Bydgoszcz, Poland, Iranian freestyle wrestler Alireza Karimi deliberately forfeited a match with a Russian competitor to avoid facing Uri Kalashnikov, an Israeli wrestler, on the mat.

After the match, video footage emerged in which Karimi’s coach, Hamidreza Jamshidi, ordered the Iranian wrestler: “You must lose, Alireza!” Karimi posted on Instagram: “Silence is the last resort. We can’t achieve justice.”

While Kalashnikov went on to win the bronze medal, Karimi was granted a meeting with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who lavished great praise on the Iranian wrestler: “I felt truly proud as you demonstrated that one of our youth is ready to disregard his inalienable right to championship, for the sake of a greater and higher goal,” Khamenei said.

Khamenei urged the authorities to compensate Karimi financially. The Islamic Republic of Iran Wrestling Federation, in an official statement, thanked Karimi: “You innocently defend the innocence of the people of Palestine. People who may not even be aware of your sacrifice.”

The United World Wrestling (UWW), the international body that governs amateur wrestling, was less encouraging than Khamenei and Iranian wrestling officials. The UWW banned Karimi and Jamshidi for violating international wrestling rules and UWW Disciplinary Regulations.

The quarterfinal of the U23 World Wrestling Championship was in November and one might well wonder why it’s worth recalling now. The UWW ruling had a dangerous domino effect on Iranian wrestling. On February 28, Rasoul Khadem, president of the Islamic Republic of Iran Wrestling Federation, resigned in protest against the regime’s policy that barred contests with Israeli athletes. Before his resignation, Khadem posed a searing question in several interviews: “If Iran’s policy is not to recognise Israel and not to face [Israeli] athletes, what is the meaning of forfeiting matches, simulating illness and the like?” Khadem accused Iranian politicians of “hiding behind Iranian athletes.”

The day after Khadem’s resignation, the heads of all wrestling teams of Iran resigned in solidarity.

By March 19, the scandal reached intolerable proportions for the regime. It forced Commander Gholam-Hossein Gheibparvar, head of the Basij, one of the five wings of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), to intervene. Condemning the resignation of the heads of all the wrestling teams, the Basij commander said: “Our ideal is to do away with the false and infanticidal Zionist regime. We want Israel to be destroyed. This is an ideal, a strategy and the popular demand of our nation. Receiving medals is an honour. Now, whoever we ask you prefer honour or preservation of the ideals as your priority, they will say: ‘Preservation of the ideals is more important for us.’”

Gheibparvar also warned: “I recommend our friends not to enter the field of sports diplomacy. This field has an owner of its own and preserving the values of the revolution is subjected to well-defined general and unalterable principles.”

The Basij chief’s warnings clearly show that Iran is finding it increasingly difficult to justify its sports strategy on Israel.

How is it, Iranians must wonder, that Palestinian athletes compete with Israelis but Iranians cannot and must sacrifice medals in the name of the Palestinians?

For now, Iranian wrestlers are primarily wrestling with ideology.