Arash Miresmaeili, the Iranian flyweight judo champion, was favored to win a gold medal at the 2004 Olympic games in Athens. At the opening ceremony, Mr. Miresmaeili carried his country's flag. He listened when International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said that "athletes from the two hundred-and-two countries show us that sport unites by overriding national, political, religious, and language barriers." Then Mr. Miresmaeili had to stand by while his Olympic dream was shattered.
The Iranian government news agency issued a statement supposedly quoting Mr. Miresmaeili as saying, "Although I have trained for months and was in good shape, I refused to fight my Israeli opponent to sympathize with the suffering of the people of Palestine."
But few believe that Arash Miresmaeili himself made the decision not to compete and to choose ideological animus over sportsmanship. As Mr. Miresmaeili's shunned Israeli opponent, Ehud Vaks, said, "I feel horrible for [Miresmaeili], and I'm sure if it was up to him, he would have fought. The politicians didn't let him fight. . .it is not fair to him. He was the favorite. . . . They broke his heart."
Ehud Vaks's opinion is widely shared, and is given credence by comments from Iranian officials themselves. "Our policy is not to recognize the Zionist regime [Israel] in any international event," said Iranian government spokesman Abdollah Ramazanzadeh. And when the Iranian Olympic spokeswoman in Tehran was asked if pulling out of the contest was Mr. Miresmaeili's decision, she said, "No."
President George W. Bush said that the desire to represent their country motivates Olympic athletes from around the world:
“By coming together in friendly competition, all Olympians are sending the message that freedom and hope are more powerful than terror and despair.”
The Olympic games are an opportunity for nations to come together in a celebration of human excellence. Officials of the Iranian government broke with that spirit by bringing prejudice and politics to Athens.