“In the match against Shota Ogawa from Japan in the quarter-finals of Under-23 World Championship in Hungary, Iran’s 55kg representative Pouya Nasserpour was severely injured with a broken ankle, and was immediately taken to hospital for treatment and could not continue the tournament.”
This is how Tasnim, a news agency closely linked with the Revolutionary Guards, reported the event that took place in Budapest on Saturday, November 2. The words “immediately” and “broken ankle” in Tasnim’s reporting merit particular attention.
A few hours after the event, Mehrzad Esfandiarifar, Nasserpour’s former coach, talked to the media about the injury. Coaches of Iran’s National Wrestling Team had refused to talk about Nasserpour; but Esfandiarifar, who is now the head coach of Taiwan’s Greco-Roman National Wrestling Team, told reporters that “I talked with Pouya Nasserpour on the phone a few hours after the match. He said his foot got twisted in the first period. He sent me a picture of his foot and said in no uncertain terms that he could not continue fighting.”
Compare this statement with the news as reported by Tasnim. Esfandiarifar says he spoke with Nasserpour “a few hours” after the match, receiving a picture of his twisted and swollen ankle; whereas according to Tasnim, the ankle was “broken” and Nasserpour was “immediately” taken to hospital.
News of Nasserpour’s injury was reported not immediately but a few hours after he lost the match to his Japanese opponent and was relegated to a lower group. The rules of the World Wrestling Union (WWU), organizer of the World U23 Wrestling Championships, stipulate that a defeated wrestler must wait to see whether or not an opponent reaches the finals. If an opponent does proceed to the final round, the relegated wrestler can return to the mat to fight for a bronze medal against other relegated contestants.
And here’s the rub. Before Shota Ogawa, Nasserpour’s victorious rival, had actually reached the finals, there was no word of a broken ankle, but afterwards, when Ogawa was confirmed for the final, Nasserpour was taken to hospital.
Why? The answer may be that Nasserpour would have been obliged to face a relegated Israeli wrestler in the bronze medal match.
Alireza Dabir, an Olympics gold medalist wrestler and the current president of Iran’s Wrestling Federation, said in an interview before the 2002 wrestling World Championships, that Iranian wrestlers are intentionally injured so as to avoid facing Israeli opponents. The methods used, he said, include placing heavy weights on bones and massaging them with ice.
A Third Version
But first – let’s go back to Nasserpour. The Tasnim news agency said his ankle was broken and he was immediately taken to the hospital. His former coach told BBC Persian [Persian link] that the ankle was twisted and swollen in the first period but he continued to fight till the end of the match. Nasserpour himself later came out with yet a third version of the event: “After the match I was suffering from excruciating pain. After they took an X-ray it turned out that the tendons of my foot were overstretched.”
These three contradictory stories have one thing in common. After his Japanese contender reached the finals, Nasserpour had to face the Israeli wrestler Maksym Vysotskyi to fight over the bronze medal; allegedly, this was not acceptable to the Islamic Republic, so they used the old “injury” trick coaches have ready for Iranian athletes to avoid competing against Israelis.
Tasnim had shown little interest in the competitions in Hungary before then – but after the alleged injury it published [Persian link] four pictures showing the ambulance at the wrestling arena and the medics attending to Nasserpour.
In 2018, Nasserpour won the gold medal in Junior World Greco-Roman Wrestling Championships in Slovakia. Although he is young, he is also a member of Iran’s National Greco-Roman Wrestling Team for adults. It is not impossible that he could have been injured in the competition against his Japanese opponent. But one important question remains. In Greco-Roman wrestling, all action takes place above the waistline; since this style of wrestling forbids holds below the waist, how was the ankle was injured?
Even if we accept that Nasserpour could have injured his ankle through some sudden and fast rotation, another question presents itself. How come news of the injury was not announced until after his Japanese competitor reached the finals and the lottery system pitted Nasserpour against an Israeli wrestler for the bronze medal?
A Third Question
But there is also a third question that remains unanswered. Why are Iranian wrestlers injured only when they are to face Israeli competitors?
United World Wrestling knows about this Iranian trick to avoid facing Israeli athletes. The body has therefore passed new rules saying that even if a wrestler is injured before a match starts, he must come to the mat, shake hands with his competitor, and stand next to the referee until the referee announces his competitor as the winner; only then, can he leave the arena.
The main point for Iranian sports and politics is nothing less than to not to shake hands with Israeli athletes.
“I want to tell you that you should not be scared,” Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, said in November 2018 when meeting with the champions of Iran’s national teams, as they returned home from the Asian Games in Indonesia. “You should not be intimidated by things like: ‘Don’t participate in this match,’ ‘Don’t wear that outfit,’ ‘A federation or sports organization will be angry at you,’ and so on. To hell with them if they get angry, they can’t do anything.”
“To hell with them”
But the Supreme Leader’s promise – “they can’t do anything” – could not be kept. On September 18, 2019, the International Judo Federation (IJF) officially suspended Iran’s Judo Federation until further notice, debunking Khamenei’s insistence that sporting organizations had no power over Iranian athletes.
The reason given by IJF was “political interference” by Iranian authorities and their refusal to allow Iranian sportsmen to compete against Israelis, after the federation’s extensive investigation to determine whether the Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei was directly ordered to lose a match to avoid competing against an Israeli athlete. Iran’s judo athletes lost any realistic chance of competing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics because of that loss.
Even before this, the World Wrestling Union had threatened to suspend Iran if it were to be demonstrated that “political interference” was responsible for preventing Iranian athletes from competing against Israelis.
On March 3, 2018, Rasoul Khadem, the head of Iran’s Wrestling Federation, issued a statement urging Iranian politicians not to sacrifice the country’s national champions to further their own political agenda, adding that he had resigned on February 28 because of what he described as “the politicization of Iranian sports.” He also accused Iranian officials of “lying,” being indifferent to “Iran’s national champions” and their standing in the world, and he said that state officials seemed to regard the performance of Iranian athletes as no more than a kind of entertainment for the people.
After Khadem’s resignation, the entire Iranian wrestling technical staff and the heads of wrestling teams offered their resignations in solidarity, forcing sports officials to find a way to placate him and convince him to return to his job. Khadem returned in April, and others retracted their resignations as well. But the question of the ban on Iranians competing against Israeli athletes remained unresolved.
The Tokyo Olympics are approaching and the World Wrestling Union as well as the International Olympics Committee are looking closely at the behavior of the most internationally successful Iranian sport – and what happened with Nasserpour does not bode well for the team’s overall chance to compete.
To escape this unwanted attention, Nasserpour should have “immediately” gone to the hospital, before the time arrived for him to go to the mat and shake the hand of his Israeli opponent. But now that chance is gone.
Pedram Ghaemi is a citizen journalist based in Tehran. He uses a pseudonym for protection purposes
Iran Punished for Forcing Judokas to Avoid Israeli Athletes, October 23, 2019
Iranian Judo Federation Suspended — And Now all Iranian Sports are at Risk, September 18, 2019
The Iranian Fugitive Boxer Who Said No to the “Israel Ban,” February 25, 2019
Will Iranian Wrestlers Compete against Israelis?, September 4, 2018
Guards: Don’t Compete with Israelis or We’ll Break Your Legs, March 6, 2018
The Islamic Republic Already Recognizes Israel, December 5, 2017
Wrestler Forced to Lose to Avoid Competing Israeli, November 2017
Chess Grandmaster's Brother Also Abandons Iran, October 2017
The Fear of Competing Against Israel, February 24, 2017