In an unprecedented move, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has publicly praised an Iranian wrestler who recently threw a match against a Russian peer and feigned injury to avoid facing an Israeli athlete in the next round.
Earlier, on December 4, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a video lambasting Iran’s authorities for pressing its athletes to avoid competing against Israelis.
While calling on Iranians to use social media to foster co-existence, Netanyahu said, “I want you to film yourself playing a sport against someone of a different nationality, a different faith, or different color. I want you to compete like hell -- we’re all for competition.”
“I want you to show Iran’s regime that hating others will never make you a champion. It only makes you a pathetic and insecure loser,” he said.
The widely circulated video showing Khamenei praising the 86-kilo, under-23 Iranian wrestler Alireza Karimi is largely seen as a response to Netanyahu’s comments.
Khamenei presented Karimi with one of his own carnelian rings and praised him in writing, as well.
In a letter congratulating the national weightlifting team for reaching the world championship, Khamenei did not miss the chance to pay homage to Karimi, too.
“I express my heartfelt gratitude to Alireza Karimi, the honored champion of our country who became a symbol of dignity for the Iranian people,” Khamenei said in an official statement on December 6.
Karimi was in the lead against Russian Alikhan Zhabrailov on November 25 when his coach learned that Israeli Uri Kalashnikov had pinned his American rival, Sam Brooks, meaning that if Karimi won he could face him in the next round.
Calls from the sidelines were then clearly heard, urging Karimi to throw the match.
When Karimi appeared not to be listening, the coach called for a time-out.
According to TrackWrestling, “When the contest resumed, Karimi stood upright and leisurely strolled toward Zhabrailov. The Russian wrestler then took the Iranian down with ease. On the ground, and without resistance, Zhabrailov ankle-laced Karimi and rolled him five times to secure a 14-3 technical superiority victory.”
However, as Zhabrilov pinned Kalashnikov in the next round, Karimi was once again obliged to face his Israeli peer for the bronze medal. Karimi feigned injury to avoid facing Kalashnikov.
Later, in an interview with state-run Iran Students News Agency, Karimi admitted he had been “told that the Israeli wrestler defeated his American rival, and that I must lose to avoid facing an Israeli opponent. In a moment, my whole world seemed to come to an end.”
“I tried hard for months to get the world gold medal,” he said. “Achieving a world medal is the only happiness for any of us.”
Khamenei called Karimi’s loss a heroic gesture. “My dear boy, you have done a great job... You did it for the sake of God, and ask God for compensation. When I heard the news [losing to the Russian and presenting the Israeli athlete a walkover], I really felt honor for what you did.”
Khamenei assured Karimi that temporal awards also await him. “Of course, [Iranian] officials should spare no effort in terms of praise and material rewards,” he added. "I truly felt proud that you showed that one of our youths is ready to trample upon his ego for a great and lofty goal and forgo his definitive right and certain championship.”
However, praising an athlete for deliberately losing a match is against international sports regulations, according to Radio Farda sports commentator Mehdi Rostampour.
“There have been hundred of cases of Iranian athletes forfeiting matches against their Israeli peers in past decades, but [only] 10 to 15 of them have been in the news,” Rostampour said. “International sports authorities have always promised they would look into the cases but their promises have never been fulfilled.”
What makes Karimi’s case unique and unprecedented, Rostampour said, is the fact that Iranian authorities have publicly praised his deliberate losses.
United World Wrestling has insisted its legal and ethics committees will review the matter in the coming weeks and make recommendations to the organization’s administrating body.
Nevertheless, Rostampour said, it is not certain that reviewing Karimi’s case will lead to a solid conclusion such as Iran being barred from international sports events.
Karimi’s case has become so sensitive that the head of the Iran Wrestling Federation is reportedly set to officially defend the country's position.
“Hopefully, with a strong defense, Iran’s wrestling will not be suspended,” secretary of the Iran Wrestling Federation, Reza Layeq said after the Krimi