By Payam Younesipour
September 10, 2019
Five Iranian wrestlers could be in serious trouble with Islamic Republic authorities and face a serious crisis in their careers if they end up having to compete against Israelis at the 2019 World Wrestling Championships, which take place from September 14 and September 22 in Kazakstan.
For the last 40 years, Iran has banned its athletes from competing against Israelis, and has repeatedly punished wrestlers and others who have defied the ban. Instead, athletes are forced to lose on purpose or to fake injuries in order to avoid competing with Israelis.
The wrestling championships will take place in the Kazakh city of Nur-Sultan. According to United World Wrestling (UWW), this is the most important event for wrestlers on their way to qualifying for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. UWW, unsurprisingly, has announced its rules and guidelines concerning wrestlers who fail to win medals at this event. Those who are eliminated will find it difficult to advance to the Olympic Games.
For Iran, the fact that five Israeli athletes will be competing at Nur-Sultan is not simply a matter of losing or not getting to the Olympics, but much more.
“I am sure that you are aware of banning a bigger number of national wrestling champions from competing against the representatives of the Zionist regime,” wrote Rasoul Khadem, an Olympic gold medalist and the president of Iran’s Wrestling Federation until 2018, in a letter to the Supreme National Security Council. “This is something that goes beyond depriving our national champions in this field who are, and have been, the standard-bearers of this country’s honor and pride at major Olympics and international arenas. It puts the whole of Iranian wrestling in danger.”
But he went further. He warned the Supreme National Security Council that after many meetings with Nenad Lalović, the president of UWW, he came to the conclusion that preventing Iranian athletes from competing against Israelis could mean not only the suspension of the Iranian wrestling team, but also a suspension for Iranian athletes taking part in any sport.
Rasoul Khadem, a critic of the Islamic Republic’s policy of banning competition against Israeli athletes, as well as a number of Iranian wrestling veterans, previously wrote a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei, asking him to bring an end to this policy. But in a speech on September 27, 2018, the Supreme Leader rejected their request. “You must not yield to threats that if you do not participate in a match or do not do some other thing, this or that federation will be unhappy with you. You must not yield to threats or to wrong and imposed norms.”
The United World Wrestling and the International Olympic Committee began taking issue with Iranian sports federations and their problems with Israeli athletes in 2017 when, during the Wrestling Under-23s World Championship, hosted by Poland from November 21 to November 26 of that year, Iranian freestyle wrestler Alireza Karimi’s coach stood close to the mat and shouted out: “Lose, Alireza! You must lose. Do not win, Alireza!” Karimi was about to beat his Russian opponent, Alikhan Zhabrailov, but his coach had been informed that if Karimi won, his next match would be against the Israeli wrestler Uri Kalashnikov. Karimi had no choice but to lose.
The “Nightmare” is Back
Now the same Uri Kalashnikov has returned as the biggest nightmare for Iranian wrestlers in Kazakhstan. He and the Iranian champion Hasan Yazdani compete in the same freestyle 86kg category.
Hasan Yazdani’s impressive record has made him a figure of awe among his competitors. He won a gold medal in the last Olympics, a gold, a silver and a bronze at the World Wrestling Championships, a gold medal at the Asian Games, three golds at the Wrestling World Cup, a gold at the Islamic Solidarity Games — to name just a few. He is undeniably the best chance for Iran to win a gold medal in the 2020 Olympics. But if the lottery decides that he has to face Kalashnikov on the mat and he is forced to forfeit the competition, then not only will this chance evaporate but — in the worst case scenario — Iran’s wrestling team might lose its Olympics quota.
Another Iranian gold medalist who must be worried is Saeid Abdevali, a Greco-Roman wrestler competing in the 82kg category. He has won many championships around the world and craves an Olympic gold medal, but, again, the luck of the draw might put him face to face with the Israeli wrestler Igor Petrishin. Petrishin is in the same weight category as Abdevali, but he is in no way in the same class. Looking at his past record, it could be assumed that if Abdevali fought him 10 times, Petrishin’s hand would not be raised in victory even once. Nevertheless, Abdevali might also be forced to forfeit the match and to forget about the Olympics if he faces Petrishin.
Bahman Teymouri, born in 1994, will be one of the youngest Iranian wrestlers to compete at the World Wrestling Championships in Kazakhstan. He won a gold and a bronze medal at the Asian Wrestling Championships in the 79kg category, the same category in which Israeli athlete Hanoc Rachamin competes. And the chances are high that Teymouri will have to face his Israeli competitor in an early round.
In the Greco-Roman 77kg category Iran has a sure bet to win a gold medal and go to the Olympics. Mohammad Ali Geraei has won two gold medals at the World Wrestling Clubs Cup, a gold at the Islamic Solidarity Games, a gold at the Asian Games, a bronze at the World Wrestling Championships and two silvers at the Asian Wrestling Championships. But his chances of getting to Tokyo can only be realized if he is somehow saved from competing against the Israeli Roman Zhernovetski. Geraei has a very good chance of getting into the Olympics if he is not unfortunately matched with Zhernovetski — and if they do not come across each in later rounds.
Reza Atri, the freestyle wrestler in the 57kg category, also has a good chance of winning at Nur-Sultan, provided that he does not meet the Israeli Daniel Popov on the mat. Atri won a gold medal at the 2019 Asian Championship and bronze medals at the 2017 Asian Championships and 2018 Asian Games. Last year he defeated, 6 to 0, Erdenebatyn Bekhbayar, a Mongolian wrestler and the winner of a gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games and bronze medals at the 2015 and 2017 world championships. Atri says he is in shape to win but, of course, the prospect of having to compete against Popov must be a profound worry for him.
Israel has tried to send a representative in each weight category that Iran has a chance of winning — the country may well be very happy if the Islamic Republic orders its wrestlers to lose again, and to hear from the sidelines: “Lose! You must lose!”
Less than two weeks ago, Iranian judo champion Saeid Mollaei was forced to lose in a major international competition to avoid competing against the Israeli judoka Sagi Muki. Mollaei told the International Judo Federation that Iranian sports ministry officials and Iran’s National Olympic Committee ordered him to lose. After this incident, it seems very likely that the International Olympic Committee will be carefully watching Iranian wrestlers in Nur-Sultan.