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Culture

Confusion Surrounds Iranian Judo Boycott

The Olympics faced its first political scandal when an Iranian world judo champion refused to show up for his match against an Israeli. Iran has said it would not compete against the Jewish state.

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Arash Miresmaeili said weight kept him form competing

Iranian judoka Arash Miresmaeili's official reason for his non-appearance on Sunday was excess weight, but his disqualification quickly caused a scandal to erupt. The International Judo Federation (IJF) has questioned how such an experienced competitor could fail to make his weight. Two days ago, Miresmaeili threatened to boycott the competition out of protest against Israel's role in the Middle East conflict.

"If this situation has arisen from a political decision, the IJF will react to it," said the body's media commissioner Michel Brousse.

Miresmaili -- the world champion and the athlete chosen to carry his country's flag in the opening ceremonies -- had been drawn to face Israel's Ehud Vaks in the first round. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has refused to recognize Israel's right to exist, and has sympathized with the Palestinian cause.

A statement on Sunday from the Iranian National Olympic Committee in Tehran said: "This is a general policy of our country to refrain from competing against athletes of the Zionist regime and Arash Miresmaeili has observed this policy."

Confusion surrounds decision

Adding to the confusion though, the Iranian committee said it was not Miresmaeili's decision to abide by the policy. The IJF also said it had received letters on Saturday from officials of the Iranian Judo Federation denying that Miresmaeili would withdraw from the competition on political grounds.

The IJF said it has passed on its information to the International Olympic Committee.

"We don't know if they (the reports) are true or not true. We have to study that. At the moment we don't have the right information," said Brousse, adding that the IJF is committed to protecting the values of judo, and the idea of the Olympic truce, as recalled by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan during the opening ceremony. In ancient times, hostilities between enemies were suspended during the Olympic Games.

The Iranian government was pleased with Miresmaeili's disqualification. "The name Arash Miresmaeili will go down in Iran's history as source of pride for our country," said Iranian President Mohammed Khatami.

Disappointment and disbelief

Sport: Judo

Fights are okay, but politics aren't supposed to be part the Olympics

German judo experts expressed their disappointment and disbelief at the turn of events.

"I don't want to get into an argument about religion, but if someone is going to back out of a competition for religious reasons, then he should be consistent about it and not compete at all," said Manfred Birod, sports director of the German Judo Federation.

"For me, it's just unimaginable when someone backs out of the Olympics for political reasons," said Germany's judo coach Frank Wienecke. "The Olympics are the greatest. Just to be part of the Games is every athlete's life goal."

Following Miresmaeili's no-show, his would-be opponent, Vaks, moved up to the third round where he was beaten. "I had hoped that he would change his mind and that I could have competed against him, even if I wouldn't have stood a chance," Vaks said. "It was not satisfying to move into the next round in this way. Politics has no place on the judo mat."