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Olympics: Iran news renews flap about not facing Israeli athletes

July 25, 2012 |  9:34 am

Iran

After an Iranian official said that the Islamic Republic's athletes would play “every country” at the Olympics, it seemed the London Games would put a halt to Iranians boycotting events to avoid facing off against Israelis.

But the question of whether Iran and Israel will compete head to head is up in the air again after an Iranian news agency linked to the government reported that the official had been misquoted earlier this week.

Ducking out of events to make a statement is frowned on by the Olympics. The president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, warned earlier this summer that athletes who bowed out of competition without a good reason would face sanctions.

Bahram Afsharzadeh, secretary-general of the Iranian Olympic committee, seemed to swear off any boycott in his remarks. “We just follow the sportsmanship and play every country,” Afsharzadeh was quoted as saying by the Associated Press and other outlets Monday.

The Associated Press noted that at times, Afsharzadeh had been speaking through an interpreter. In Iran, the semiofficial Fars news agency reported Tuesday that his words had been twisted, saying that Afsharzadeh had never named Israel in his remarks.

Last week, Iranian Sports Minister Mohammad Abbasi insisted that Iranian athletes would continue to boycott events with Israeli competitors, telling the Islamic Republic News Agency that “not competing with the Zionist athletes is one of the values and prides of the Iranian athletes and nation.”

The debate may be a purely symbolic one: Iranian athletes are unlikely to face Israelis in competition at all, with the two countries sending few Olympians in the same categories, according to Israeli media.

An Iranian judo practitioner who might have faced an Israeli in competition, Javad Mahjoub, is reportedly missing the Games due to gastric illness -- a withdrawal that some have eyed suspiciously. In the past, Mahjoub told Iranian media he had deliberately lost a match to avoid facing off with an Israeli.

The International Olympic Committee said it was impossible to know at this stage whether any of the countries' athletes would face each other, "as it will depend on qualifiers during the Games."

In several countries across the Middle East, Olympians have faced pressure to sidestep competing against Israeli athletes as a political statement. Some Iranian athletes avoided matches with Israelis by withdrawing from events at the Olympics in 2004 and 2008, according to the Associated Press.

The Olympics come at a time of continuing tensions between the two counties: Iran and Israel have long been at odds over Iran's disputed nuclear program, which Iran says is solely for peaceful purposes. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also has blamed Lebanon-based Hezbollah and its Iranian backers for a recent bombing targeting Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, an allegation Iran has denied. 

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Soldiers raise an Iranian flag Monday during the flag-raising ceremony for Iran at the Olympic Village in London four days before the start of the London 2012 Summer Olympics. Credit: Khaled Desouki / Associated Press 

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