At freestyle wrestling’s U-23 World Championships in Poland, an Iranian wrestler intentionally lost a match to avoid facing an Israeli in the next round. The incident, which is not an isolated occurrence, is yet another reminder that politics and diplomacy are never too far away from sports fields and arenas.
The incident happened last Sunday while Iranian wrestler Alireza Karimi (aka Alireza Karimimachiani) was competing against Russian Alikhan Zhabrailov. Karimi was leading the contest 3-2 with just a minute left.
During this last minute, according to TrackWrestling, Karimi’s coach began yelling at his wrestler to lose. This was because Karimi’s coaching staff had realized that the winner of this match would face Uri Kalashnikov, an Israeli wrestler, who at that moment had pinned American Sam Brooks to advance to the quarterfinals.
With Karimi seemingly uninterested in his coaches’ wishes, the coaches throw in a challenge block to create a pause in the action. During the break the coaches again commanded Karimi to lose the match.
When the contest resumed Karimi, stood upright and leisurely strolled towards Zhabrailov. The Russian wrestler then took the Iranian down with ease. On the ground, and without resistance, Zhabrailov ankle-laced Karimi and rolled him five times to secure a 14-3 technical superiority victory.
You can see the moment below via the New York Times’ Tehran bureau chief Thomas Erdbrink.
Iranian wrestler Alireza Karimi about to beat Russian, but will have to face Israeli next round. His coach his calling him from the sidelines, telling him to “lose.” Iran forbids its athletes to play Israeli’s. Iranian wrestler gives up. pic.twitter.com/nX9KHaH8Jn— Thomas Erdbrink (@ThomasErdbrink) November 27, 2017
Zhabrailov would go on to win the gold in the tournament's 86-kilogram category. Karimi was supposed to face the Israeli Kalashnikov in the repechage (for a shot at bronze), but he forfeited the match.
TrackWrestling remarked that this is not the first time something like this has happened on the wrestling mat. At last year’s Cadet World Championships, Iranian Seyedmehdi Hashemijouybari drew Israeli’s Lior Altshuler in the first round. Hashemijouybari forfeited the bout.
The Times of Israel stated that incidents like this have happened in other sports, too. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008 an Iranian swimmer refused to enter the same pool as an Israeli. At the Athens Olympics in 2004 an Iranian Judoka refused to face an Israeli, resulting in his disqualification.
After Israel was established in 1948, Iran was the second Muslim-majority country to formally recognize the new nation as a sovereign state. Turkey was the first. However, after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the nation’s new theocratic rulers rescinded their recognition of Israel. Formal relations between the two nations have been non-existent ever since.
It is thought that part of Iran’s platform of refusing to acknowledge Israel is also refusing to compete against any team or individual representing Israel in a sporting endeavor. For Karimi this meant not facing Kalashnikov in Poland and thus forfeiting his shot at a highly prized gold medal.
NPR quoted what Karimi told the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency after the competition. He said he was “told that the Israeli wrestler defeated his American rival, and that I must lose to avoid facing an Israeli opponent. In a moment, my whole world seemed to come to an end.”
“I tried hard for months to get the world gold medal,” added Karimi. “Achieving a world medal is the only happiness for any of us.”