Draw had pitted Iranian champ vs. Israeli foe

Updated: August 15, 2004, 2:27 PM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- International judo officials are investigating whether a two-time champion from Iran who reportedly said he wouldn't fight an Israeli opponent deliberately avoided the bout Sunday by showing up overweight.

Arash Miresmaeili, a favorite in the under 146-pound (66kg) class, was declared overweight at the morning weigh-in and disqualified for his first-round bout against Ehud Vaks.

After Thursday's draw, the Iranian press agency IRNA quoted Miresmaeili as saying: "I refused to play against an Israeli rival to sympathize with the oppressed Palestinian people.''

Iran does not recognize Israel and bans any contact with the Jewish state.

The International Judo Federation met to consider the circumstances around the disqualification and will meet again Monday, said federation spokesman Michel Brousse.

"No decision was made but we are studying very closely this question,'' Brousse told The Associated Press. "We need to investigate more elements.''

Miresmaeili "was overweight and we need now to investigate more,'' he said. "Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and we don't want to accuse anyone.''

By merely missing weight, Miresmaeili could claim that he had not ascribed a political motive to his actions and thus avoid any sanctions for his decision. The federation did not disclose his weight.

After Miresmaeili was disqualified, Iran's ambassador to Greece praised Miresmaeili, IRNA reported. In a message, Mehdi Mohtashami was quoted by IRNA as saying, "On behalf of all institutions and Iran's embassy in Greece, I congratulate you on your courageous move to refuse to compete with a judoka from the Zionist regime.''

"Certainly, the Iranian nation considers Miresmaeili as the real champion of the 2004 Olympic Games,'' the message added.

After advancing because of the disqualification, Vaks lost in the next round to Amar Meridja of Algeria.

Miresmaeili was world judo champion in 2001 and 2003 and finished fifth at the Sydney Olympics. He carried the Iranian flag at Friday's opening ceremony in Athens and was considered a favorite to win Iran's first gold medal in judo.

Iranian athletes have refused to compete against Israelis in the past. At the 2001 judo world championships, Mahed Malekmohammadi of Iran did not compete again Yoel Razvozov.

Earlier Sunday, Brousse disclosed it had received a statement from the president of the Iranian judo federation saying "that the rumors were not true'' concerning Miresmaeili's refusal to compete.

Miresmaeili has not participated in any major international tournaments this season, although he did train for a tournament in Paris in April.

The last time he competed internationally was at the world championships in September 2003 in Osaka, where he beat France's Larbi Benboudaoud, who was the runner-up in the Sydney Olympics in the 66kg class.

Brousse noted that judo's ideals are the same as those which IOC President Jacques Rogge mentioned at the opening ceremony. Rogge had mentioned that athletes "give us reasons to believe in sport that is increasingly credible and pure by refusing doping and respecting fair play.''

The IOC said the issue had not been brought to its attention.

"This issue has never come to the table at the IOC level,'' IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said. "He was overweight. It's not appropriate to make any comment. For us it's an issue for the federation.''

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press