Karimi Told To Throw Match, Ignites Iranian Controversy

Iranian Olympian Alireza Karimi-Machiani was told by his coaches to lose on purpose in the middle of his first-round match at the U23 Men's Freestyle World Championships in Poland last week in order to to avoid an Israeli opponent in the next round. Karimi was then forced to forfeit when he was scheduled to wrestle the same Israeli in the repechage.

Since the Islamic Revolution at the end of the 1970s, Iran has forced its athletes to comply with a de facto boycott of Israeli teams and individual competitors. The ministry of sport has threatened banishment for Iranians who do not comply. The last competition between Israeli and Iranian athletes was in 1983.

The result of this toxic mix of sport and politics was on full display in the 86kg bracket of the U23 World Championships this past Saturday.

Two-time Asian champion and world bronze medalist Alireza Karimi drew the Russian Alikhan Zhabrailov in the first round. The winner of that match would face either Sammy Brooks or Israeli Uri Kalashnikov.

Brooks was unexpectedly pinned by Kalashnikov in the middle of Karimi's match with Zhabrailov. With their wrestler winning 3-2, Karimi's corner through the challenge brick in order to stop the match and conference with their wrestler. The coaches were overhead by fans and media alike telling Karimi that he had to lose to Zhabraliov. 

Karimi complied, and, when action resumed, allowed Zhabrailov to take him down and finish him off with a tech fall by leg lace. 

Unfortunately for the Iranian coaches' plans, Zhabrailov made the finals, pulling both Karimi and Kalashnikov into the repechage. Though they were scheduled to meet in the first round of wrestlebacks, Karimi forfeited. Zhabrailov would go on to win the gold and Kalashnikov would win bronze.

Iranian athletes who are forced to forfeit to Israeli competitors typically remain quiet about the decision, providing cover for the Iranian sports federations to maintain that the forfeits are not politically motivated. Karimi, however, took to Instagram soon after the tournament and posted a video expressing his frustration about the events. 

This was the second time Karimi was forced out of a tournament due to his country's policy regarding Israeli opponents, having also been forced to concede a match at the 2013 World Youth Championships.

In a post-tournament interview, very roughly translated via Google Translate, Karimi laments how hard he worked in preparation for the U23 tournament, only to have that opportunity taken away from him. Karimi is also worried that he will miss out on the financial compensation that he would have otherwise earned at the tournament, noting that wrestlers do not make very much money in Iran.

Karimi does not question the ostensible purpose of the boycott, which is to protest Israel's treatment of Palestinians, but in the manner in which the Iranian government forces its athletes to implement its protest. 

The New York Times quotes Karimi as follows:

I do accept that Israel is an oppressor and commits crimes, but would it not be oppression if our authorities undermine my hard work again?

In another rare instance of an Iranian recognizing the Israeli athletic boycott, the Iranian Wrestling Federation took to Instagram to praise Karimi for making a professional sacrifice on behalf Palestinian people. 

The International Olympic Committee and most international sport federations have explicit rules that proscribe avoiding contests for political reasons. United World Wrestling has rules stating that the unexcused and purposeful withdrawal from a competition is a punishable offense (rule 7.2.d-e). Furthermore, rule 8.2 states:

Any official or coach who incites a wrestler to leave the victory to his/her opponent shall be disqualified for the event and shall be prohibited from representing his/her national federation during events held under the control of the Federation for a period of 1 month to 3 years.

It is unknown if UWW has any plans to discipline the Iranian Wrestling Federation. 

Karimi is also not the first Iranian wrestler who was forced to forfeit to an Israeli athlete. Most recently, in the 2011 Greco-Roman World Championship, Ghasem Rezaei of Iran drew Robert Avanesyan of Israel in the first round. Rezaei forfeited the match and was eliminated from the tournament.

It is worth pointing out that the boycotting of Israel in athletics is not exclusively practiced by Iran. Nor does Iran make make a distinction based on the Israeli athletes' religion. Regardless of faith, Iran will boycott an Israeli athlete or team.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has not had official diplomatic relations with the state of Israel since 1979.

Since going public about being told by his coaches to throw his match with Zhabrailov, Karimi's story has been picked up by the mainstream media in the West. The events have also generating a lot of attention within Iran. Comments on social media and in the Iranian press have generally been in support of Karimi and against implementing the Israeli athletic boycott, which is increasingly being seen as unfair to the Iranian athletes and ineffective in their implicit political goals. 

One of the more popular reformist newspapers in Iran (Aftab-e Yazd) recently ran the headline, "You Are The Champion: Defeat Of Iranian Wrestler Sparks Controversy"

And while most Iranian commenters have sympathized with Karimi, others are taking a more anti-establishment stance, berating the wrestler for not ignoring his coaches' directives to throw the match.

According to the BBC, one commenter implored, "You were wrong, Karimi. You accepted defeat without imposing any cost against the main reasons behind your defeat. You just became their pawn."

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