Politics broke the surface of Oympics swimming yesterday when Iran’s Mohammad Alirezaei pulled out of the men’s 100m breaststroke heats, and the Olympics, just minutes before he was due to compete against Israel’s Tom Be’eri. According to Iranian’s state-media reports, Alirezaei fell ill and was carried to a Beijing hospital.
But Iran has a history of forfeiting Olympic contests rather than compete against Israel — and initially citing health reasons as the reason.
At the Athens Olympics in 2004, Iran’s judo world champion, Arash Miresmaeili, refused to compete against Ehud Vaks of Israel in the first round, later telling the official Iranian news agency that although he had trained hard in the hope of winning the gold, “I refused to play against an Israeli rival to sympathize with the oppressed Palestinian people.” Miresmaeili is in Beijing to compete but has so far stayed out of the political spotlight — if only because he will not have to face off with Israel.
This time around, Iran had stated it would compete along with Israel. “Alirezaei swims in lane one and the representative of the Zionist regime [Israel] in lane seven, so they will not face each other, said Iranian National Olympic Committee president Ali Kafashian before the race.
Meanwhile, Israel’s Be’eri chose to focus on his own accomplishment, setting a national record of 1.02:42m time, finishing in fourth place. “I just came here ready,” he said, “and I wasn’t nervous at all.”
Israeli-Persian relations warmed on the basketball court later on when Iranian captain Mohammed Nikkhah dismissed politics and embraced Russia’s coach David Blatt, who holds American and Israeli citizenship. “We are coming here for playing sport, nothing else,” Nikkhah said.