Iranian judo officials agree to end decades-long boycott of Israeli athletes
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Iranian judo officials agree to end decades-long boycott of Israeli athletes

Historic commitment comes after talks with International Judo Federation over ‘disturbing phenomenon’ of Iranians throwing matches

Uzbekistan's Bekmurod Oltiboev, in white, competes against Iran's Javad Mahjoub during their men's +100 kg judo bronze medal match at the 18th Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, August 31, 2018. (AP/Dita Alangkara)
Uzbekistan's Bekmurod Oltiboev, in white, competes against Iran's Javad Mahjoub during their men's +100 kg judo bronze medal match at the 18th Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, August 31, 2018. (AP/Dita Alangkara)

In a historic move, Iranian judo officials have agreed to stop boycotting Israeli athletes on the mat, ending a practice that had drawn criticism against Tehran in the sporting world.

In a letter to the International Judo Federation published Saturday, Iran’s Olympic Committee and local Judo Federation agreed to “fully respect the Olympic Charter and its non-discrimination principle.”

In a statement, the IJF said the letter came after several rounds of talks regarding the “disturbing phenomenon, which involves the sudden ‘injury’ or failure of weigh-in of Iranian athletes,” which it said was related to Iran trying to avoid meeting athletes from certain countries.

Neither Iran nor the IJF specifically mentioned Israel, but Iranian athletes have on several occasions forfeited matches to avoid facing Israelis, who have become increasingly relevant in the sport on the world stage.

Iran’s sports policy is an outgrowth of the country’s official refusal to recognize Israel. Its leaders routinely encourage the demise of the Jewish state and the countries are considered arch foes.

In February, Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei threw a match at the Paris Grand Slam to avoid facing Israeli Sagi Muki in the next round by feigning an injury, ending his chance at a gold medal. He then recovered to win his bronze medal match, but feigned another injury to avoid standing on the podium with Muki.

According to Israel’s Army Radio, the IJF had threatened to ban Iran from international competitions, including the Olympics, if it did not agree to fight Israelis.

On Saturday, Muki won gold at the Baku Grand Slam, likely securing his place at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Israel’s Sagi Muki poses on the podium with his gold medal following the men’s under 81 kg weight category competition during the European Judo Championship in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on April 27, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)

The IJF has in recent years stepped up pressure on Muslim boycotts of Israeli athletes, including refusals to host them or shake hands.

In 2018, the body stripped international competitions from the UAE and Tunisia over their refusal to allow Israelis to compete as Israelis.

The UAE later relented, resulting in the anthem Hatikvah being played in the country for the first time last year after Muki won the gold in the under-81 kg category.

Israeli Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev and Israel Judo Association President Moshe Ponte with medal winners during the women 52 kg medal ceremony at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam Judo tournament in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Iran has had a long-time policy of avoiding Israelis in athletic competitions, frequently at the expense of its own competitors. An Iranian swimmer refused to enter the same pool as an Israeli at the Beijing Olympics and in the 2004 Athens Games, an Iranian judoka refused to face an Israeli, resulting in his disqualification.

In February, after Mollaei threw the match in Paris, Iranian athletics chief  Davoud Azarnoush said he hoped “Israel will be wiped out and annihilated before the next Olympic games, and all of us will breathe a sigh of relief,” according to Radio Farda.

A letter from Iranian judo officials to the IJF, published on May 11, 2019. Click to expand. (IJF)

In the letter to the IJF, the Iranian sports officials said they were negotiating with Iran’s parliament “to identify proper legal resolutions,” seemingly in order to rescind the unofficial ban on competing against Israelis.

Iranians athletes have increasingly found themselves caught between domestic officials, who may punish them for competing against Israelis, and international officials, who will punish them if they forfeit matches. In recent years, an increasing number of Iranian athletes and coaches have spoken out against the policy.

The last competition between Iranian and Israeli teams on the international level dates back to a wrestling match in 1983 in Kiev, Ukraine.

The regime in Iran routinely encourages the demise of Israel, and funds, arms and trains terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad in Gaza that avowedly seek the annihilation of the Jewish state. Israel has led international opposition to the 2015 P5+1 powers’ deal with Iran, which was intended to prevent Iran attaining a nuclear weapons arsenal, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accusing the Iranians of lying about their nuclear weapons program and successfully lobbying US President Donald Trump to withdraw from the accord.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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