‘They Teach You to Hate’: Iranian Athletes Share Traumatizing Experiences of Being Forced to Forfeit Matches With Israeli Opponents
Iranian athletes who fled their home country and now live in exile have shared with CNN Sport details of their personal experiences with being forced to throw matches in order to avoid competing against Israeli opponents.
Judoka Vahid Sarlak, 40, was first told to lose a match at the age of 17 at the 1998 World Junior Championships. In a report published Thursday, he said he was too young to think much of it at the time — but that when ordered to do the same at the 2005 World Championships in Cairo, “it was the most difficult moment of my life,” he recalled. “I was just crying and asking why? Why should I lose? I remember my coach slapped me and told me: ‘You know that you have to go and lose the match.'”
Competing in the 60kg category and on his way to win a bronze medal, Sarlak was to face an opponent from Azerbaijan, followed by Israel’s Gal Yekutiel. He said his coach told him, “Your next opponent will be an Israeli, and we are not permitted to be in a match with Israelis.” After Sarlak’s forfeit was announced, his coach escorted him out of the arena and back to their hotel, not giving him the chance to watch the rest of the competition.
“I broke all the windows in my room,” Sarlak remembered. “It was the worst day of my life. A hole opened inside of me and that hole is still open. The dream of having that medal has remained with me. I will never forgive them.” He added, “Even now, when I see my Azeri opponent, he tells me, ‘Your medal is on display at my house. Your medal is on my neck now. You didn’t want it and I won it.’ This will never be erased from my mind.”
Sarlak told CNN Sport that even saying the name Israel is not accepted in Iran. He explained, “We all know that, but the intensity of this problem is more obvious with athletes because we face situations with Israel. Ordinary people may not have to deal with it, [but] this problem is a flashpoint for athletes that will never go away.”
He added, “Every Iranian has a passport. On the first page, it is written that you can travel to any country you would like to go — except ‘the occupied Palestine.'”
Sardar Pashaei, a former junior world champion wrestler and coach, fled Iran in 2008 and now lives in the US. He was involved in the United for Navid Campaign to save the life of Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari, who was executed in September 2020. Pashaei told CNN Sport about seeing one of his wrestlers in Iran, Babak Ghorbani, not being allowed to fight because he was matched with an athlete from Israel.
“He was sitting on the stage in the stadium and he couldn’t believe it. He was crying and crying. He was telling me, ‘You know how hard I worked! I don’t deserve this!’ Pashaei shared. “This is not just about losing one match, it affects your whole life. Your dignity has been taken away by other people, people who are usually members of the [Iranian] intelligence service who don’t know the pain of being an athlete. This is sport, it has to be about peace and friendship, but they teach you to hate.”
He explained that Iranian officials are in total control of the athletes, despite their denials to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). “It’s a big lie,” he said. “Every single trip, there are members of security intelligence watching the athletes 24/7 and if they do something wrong, they have been punished.”
“I want to ask [the] IOC, are you aware of this? You talk about gender equality and race equality. Are you aware that one of your members is violating the charter all the time? You have been silent about this; we’re not going to be silenced.”
CNN Sport also spoke to Iran’s former karate international champion Mahdi Jafargholizadeh, who now lives in Finland. Jafargholizadeh said he was jailed in 2004 after being accused of planning to be an Israeli spy, where he was tortured and interrogated for months and threatened with the death penalty.
In April, the International Judo Federation (IJF) imposed a four-year ban on Iran for “repeated and very severe breaches” of the organization’s rules after it forced Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei to not compete against an Israeli athlete.
The United for Navid Campaign has written letters to leaders of the IOC and called for immediate action to be taken against the National Olympic Committee of Iran for discriminating the rights of Iranian athletes and politicizing sports.
In a letter sent on March 25, Pashaei told the IOC, “We look forward to your timely response. Every day that passes without action results in more athlete mistreatment.”