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26 Apr, 2022 15:30

Iranian Olympic karate champion questions ban on facing Israelis

Sajad Ganjzadeh said he 'cannot tolerate' the prohibition of taking on rivals from Israel
Iranian Olympic karate champion questions ban on facing Israelis

An Olympic gold medalist in karate has slammed Iran's policy of preventing his countrymen and women from competing against Israelis.

Sajad Ganjzadeh became champion in the men's kumite over-75 kilograms category at Tokyo 2020 and took to Instagram to voice his concerns in a now-deleted post.

Iran is one of a string of Asian-competing nations which does not recognize its status as a country in relation to the Palestinian conflict, and, due to this, Iranian athletes have frequently pulled out of competitions to avoid taking on opponents from Israel.

Simultaneously, Israel has not taken part in the Asian Games since 1974 either with its national Olympic committee a member of the European Olympic Committees.

With the ban not legislative, however, and instead enforced through political pressure from officials including the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranian athletes could effectively swerve it with Ganjzadeh believing the time has come for a change.

"We cannot tolerate this anymore," he insisted in the Instagram post, according to Iran International, adding that "not competing is more difficult than competing" for him and his compatriots.

Ganjzadeh's main complaint is that such prohibition forces Iranian athletes to only participate in Asian competitions, as he urged the authorities not to consider just political issues. 

But such protests risk incurring the wrath of Khamenei, who stressed what he believes are the benefits of the policy after Tokyo 2020 while pledging to help any athletes punished by international federations for refusing to compete against Israelis.

One high-profile case of an Iranian athlete going against the grain came when judo world champion Saeid Mollaei defected after being told to lose a 2019 World Championships bout so as to avoid a potential match against an athlete from Israel. 

And while he deserted the country and now represents Mongolia, who he won a silver medal for in the summer Olympics in the Japanese capital, the International Judo Federation (IJF) responded by banning Iran from international competitions for four years.

Around 30 athletes are believed to have fled Iran in recent years and sought asylum in other countries to get around the unofficial ruling, including national team Greco-roman wrestler Ali Arsalan.

Others, however, such as Asian Games karate gold medalist Amir Mehdizadeh, have been put in separate divisions to the likes of Israeli Ahmad Abu Basal so they could not meet in a recent Karate 1-Premier League event in Matosinhos.

Iran also withdrew from the Karate World Championships in Dubai last year, with the World Karate Federation insisting this was down to Covid-related issues and not the presence of Israeli contestants.