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OLYMPICS / ATHENS 2004

Iranian Athlete Quits; Refuses to Face Israeli

August 15, 2004|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Political enmity intruded on Olympic efforts to exude peaceful coexistence Saturday when an Iranian athlete who bore his nation's flag in the opening ceremony chose to quit the Games rather than compete against an Israeli.

The athlete, Arash Miresmaeili, quit rather than participate in a match against Israeli judo star Ehud Vaks.

Israel condemned the move.

"It is a pity that a country like Iran is not only breaking the spirit of the Olympics, but also remains a country that will not let its sportsmen compete in the family of nations," the Israeli ambassador to Greece, Ram Aviram, said in an interview.

Efforts to reach the Iranians were unsuccessful Saturday night. The person answering the team leader's cellphone repeatedly hung up.

Iran is among several Muslim or Arab countries that condemn Israel and its policies toward Palestinians. Although Palestinians have become associated in the minds of some Westerners with suicide bombings and other violence, their quest for a homeland marshals wide support in Europe and the Arab world.

Israel received a chilly welcome when its delegation marched through the Olympic Stadium in Friday night's opening gala. The massive crowd fell largely silent. The delegation for Palestine, on the other hand, received one of the night's most boisterous rounds of applause.

It remains to be seen whether the decision Saturday by the Iranian judo athlete to boycott the Games will generate a trend.

The small Palestinian delegation in Athens said it did not intend to stage a similar boycott -- but it also had no matches against Israelis scheduled.

"In general we are with the spirit of the Olympics," said team leader Zaher Akram, reached by telephone. "Iran can make its own decisions."

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