Games facing new crisis over Iranian no-show
Posted: Sunday August 15, 2004 4:04AM; Updated: Sunday August 15, 2004 8:49AM
ATHENS (Reuters) -- The Athens Olympics faced a new crisis on Sunday after an Iranian world judo champion forfeited his match against an Israeli, apparently because of his country's refusal to compete against the Jewish state.
The official reason for Arash Miresmaeili's non-appearance was failure to make the weight but judo chiefs were questioning how such a seasoned competitor, who had carried Iran's flag at Friday's opening ceremony, had made such a basic error.
"The IJF (International Judo Federation) is very surprised because such an elite fighter did not make his weight," the body's media commissioner Michel Brousse said.
"If this situation has arisen from a political decision, the IJF will react to it," he added.
Since its 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has refused to recognise Israel's right to exist and has allied itself to the Palestinian cause.
A statement on Sunday from the Iranian National Olympic Committee in Tehran said: "This is a general policy of our country to refrain from competing against athletes of the Zionist regime and Arash Miresmaeili has observed this policy."
Asked whether it was his decision, though, she said: "No."
Soon after the draw was made on Thursday, there had been reports that twice-world champion Miresmaeili could pull out because his opponent was an Israeli, Ehud Vaks.
Vaks was given a bye to the third round where he was beaten.
There was no immediate response on Sunday from the International Olympic Committee over such an apparent flouting of the Games ideal of sport transcending national barriers.
The Games had been rocked earlier in the week after two of Greece's biggest medal hopes, Olympic 200 metres champion Costas Kenteris and 100m silver medallist Katerina Thanou, failed to attend a Thursday dope test.
They were dropped from the host nation's team on Saturday pending an IOC disciplinary hearing on Monday.
Meanwhile, in archery, it was history and not politics that took centre stage when the modern Olympics returned to their birthplace in Athens's Panathinaiko Stadium 108 years after the first Games were held at the classical marble amphitheatre.
Fotini Vavatsi of Greece was appropriately among the first archers to retrace the steps of the first modern Olympians.
But there were just a handful of fans at the stadium in sharp contrast to the scenes of national jubilation in 1896 when 100,000 Greeks greeted their marathon-winning hero Spiridon Louis.
Attendance at the Athens Olympics has been disappointing during the first two days but organisers said they hope ticket sales will pick up soon.
The International Olympic Committee fears that the Games' image could be tarnished if competitions were held in front of half-empty stands.
Organisers were swift to play down the effect of what looked like a major embarrassment for the biggest security operation in peacetime Europe.
A British reporter who planted undetected packages around the Athens Olympic stadium did not reveal any security flaws at the Games and was practising "crank or prank journalism," organisers insisted.
Declaring the Olympics a "terrorist's dream," Bob Graham of the Sunday Mirror tabloid said he got a job as a driver for a Games contractor and was able to wander round the main stadium and get close to world leaders during Friday's opening ceremony.
Athens organisers, highly sensitive at the first summer Olympics since the September 11 attacks on the United States, said Graham's story was inaccurate on several points and called his entire investigation into question.
Games spokesman Michael Zaharatos said a background check had been carried out on the reporter before he got the job, contrary to Graham's claims and the "suspicious packages" he planted had not been detected because they were harmless.
Athens has spent one billion euros on Olympic security, four times more than Sydney in 2000. Security personnel outnumber athletes seven to one.
Swimming took centre stage on yet another bakingly hot day.
Australia's Ian Thorpe won the first round of swimming's heavyweight battle with American Michael Phelps when he posted the fastest qualifying time for the 200 metres freestyle.
Thorpe showed no signs of fatigue from his titanic struggle with Grant Hackett in Saturday's 400 freestyle final victory as he cruised through his heat in one minute 47.22 seconds.
Athens organisers were dealt a blow when Monday's racing at the Olympic rowing regatta were cancelled due to expected bad weather after a year of warnings that Schinias was the wrong choice of venue for two of the watersports.
A test regatta at Schinias in 2003 was thrown into chaos after gusting winds, traditional in August, caused several crews to sink.
Copyright 2004 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.