Iran suspended from world judo federation over Israel boycott policy

After Iranian athlete was coerced into throwing matches to avoid facing Israeli, and then defected, Islamic Republic banned from all judo competitions and activities

President of the International Judo Federation Marius Vizer at the opening ceremony of the Judo World Championships in Budapest, Hungary on August 28, 2017. (Tamas Kovacs/MTI via AP)
President of the International Judo Federation Marius Vizer at the opening ceremony of the Judo World Championships in Budapest, Hungary on August 28, 2017. (Tamas Kovacs/MTI via AP)

Iran has been suspended from international judo competitions because of its policy of boycotting bouts with Israeli athletes.

Less than a month after Iranian athlete Saeid Mollaei walked off his national team in protest of the boycott policy, the International Judo Federation (IJF) said Wednesday that Iran was suspended ahead of a full hearing.

The Iranian judo star said he was afraid to return home after exposing and criticizing his government’s pressure on him to deliberately lose his semifinal bout in last month’s World Championships in Tokyo so as not to risk facing Israel’s Sagi Muki, the eventual winner, in the Tokyo final.

“Following what happened during the last World Judo Championships Tokyo 2019, the International Judo Federation pronounces against the Iran Judo Federation a protective suspension from all competitions, administrative and social activities organized or authorized by International Judo Federation and its Unions,” the IJF said in a statement on its website.

Sagi Muki of Israel, top, competes against Matthias Casse of Belgium during a men’s -81 kilogram final of the World Judo Championships in Tokyo, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

“The Commission has a strong reason to believe that the Iran Judo Federation will continue or repeatedly engage in misconduct or commit any other offence against the legitimate interests, principles or objectives of the IJF,” the statement said.

Iran’s judo federation is accused of discriminating against Israeli athletes and breaking rules over manipulating competition results.

The suspension went into force immediately, and is subject to an appeal that can be filed by the Iranian federation within 21 days.

Iran does not recognize Israel as a country, and Iranian sports teams have for several decades had a policy of not competing against Israelis. Iranian passports remind holders in bold red they are “not entitled to travel to occupied Palestine.”

In this photo taken Sept. 12, 2019, Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei poses for a portrait photo at an undisclosed southern city of Germany. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Mollaei, the defending heavyweight world champion, has said he was repeatedly ordered by Iranian officials to lose matches or withdraw from competitions, including last month’s world championships, so as not to face Israelis. He fled to Berlin after the championships, where he was hoping to secure a place at the 2020 Olympic games.

The IJF said Mollaei had been pressured to lose by Iranian deputy sports minister Davar Zani. Mollaei was also reportedly pressured to bow out by Iranian Olympic Committee president Reza Salehi Amiri, who told him minutes before his semifinal match last Wednesday that Iranian security services were at his parents’ house in Tehran.

The IJF said an official from the Iranian embassy in Tokyo pretending to be a coach gained access to a restricted area to coerce the 27-year-old Tehran native to lose the match as he warmed up on the sidelines.

Mollaei, who was on track to face Muki in the finals of the men’s under-81 kilogram class, told the IJF that he bowed to the pressure and deliberately lost to Belgium’s Matthias Casse in the semifinals to avoid having to face the Israeli athlete, who ended up winning gold.

The International Judo Federation has thrown its support behind Mollaei, and has vowed to help him reach the summer 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo.

There have been previous examples of Iranian athletes being told to lose to avoid facing Israeli opponents, most notably wrestler Alireza Karimi, whose coach was caught yelling, “Alireza you must lose, the Israeli won” in a video that went viral in 2017.

Karimi was suspended for six months for throwing his bout, while his coach was banned for two years.

In May, after IJF chief Marius Vizer wrote to the head of the Iranian Judo Federation to protest the practice, the international body said it had reached an agreement with Iran to end the boycott. Despite a May 9 letter from Iranian judo and Olympic officials to Vizer promising to “comply with the Olympic charter and principles of non-discrimination,” the head of Iran’s Olympic committee, apparently under pressure over the commitment, later denied it had been made.

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