13 August 2008

14 August 2008 - Keep Iran out of the Olympics

(UPDATE: IOC lets Iranian swimmer off the hook with bogus excuse - history repeating itself.)

Sporting competition is not the best way to settle international conflict; it may sometimes make it worse. Last night I was at a European Champions League match In Prague where the Russian referee made several questionable calls. The home crowd broke out into chants of "Russian swine!" and, eventually, "Georgia!" I was nearly dragged into the wrong end of a soccer riot when the drunk hooligans sitting behind me mistook my foreign chatter for Russian rather than English.

Still, it has been amazing to watch the sportsmanship and even camaraderie between the Russian and Georgian competitors at the Olympic games. First, the Russian silver medalist and Georgian bronze medalist in the 10-meter air pistol competition (of all things) embraced on the podium. Then the women's beach volleyball teams shared a hug before the Georgians won an emotional match.

Contrast that to the behavior of the Iranian competitors who continue to pull out of contests in which they will have to face Israelis. An Iranian swimmer withdrew from the 100-meter breaststroke simply because an Israeli would also be in the pool. It's not the first time this has happened--an Iranian forfeited a judo match in Athens in 2004 for the same reason.

Perhaps Iranians are afraid of losing--after all, it was "two Jews and a black man" (to quote Ha'aretz) on the U.S. men's swimming team that helped Michael Phelps win gold in the 4 x 100m relay, the one race he was not a shoo-in to win. All kidding aside, the Iranian behavior is certainly the fault of Iran's regime and not the competitors themselves. They have put years of their lives into qualifying for the Olympics and are probably heartbroken to go home without even competing. The coach of the Iranian basketball team shook the hand of an Israeli who happens to be the coach of the Russian team. When asked about what he had done, he replied: "I'm here to play and not to speak about politics."

That's probably how most Iranian participants feel. But the regime's policy is bigotry at its absolute worst, reminiscent of apartheid South Africa, in which blacks and whites were not permitted to participate in sport together. The International Olympic Committee keeps letting Iran off the hook, accepting its lame excuses (the judo fighter, for example, claimed he was overweight). It is time to pressure Iran as apartheid South Africa was once pressured, and deny Iran the right to participate in the Olympics until it allows Iranians to compete against Israelis.

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