Officials in Tehran said on Tuesday that a statement by Secretary-General of the Iranian Olympic Committee and Chef de Mission Bahram Afsharzadeh claiming Iranian athletes will compete against Israelis at the upcoming London Olympics was taken out of context, according to Iran's Fars news agency.
Fars reported that "Remarks by the secretary-general of our Olympic Committee were taken out of context. What Afsharzadeh said was that Iranian athletes will compete against other athletes, but he did not mention Israel at all. The reports yesterday were Zionist lies and distortions."
On Monday, Afsharzadeh was quoted as saying "We will be truthful to sport. We just follow the sportsmanship and play every country." Afsharzadeh spoke in the athletes' village after signing the "truce wall," a U.N.-backed initiative calling on warring parties around the world to end hostilities during the period of the games. "In sport and in Olympics, all the countries must [be] together with the teams in friendship," he said. "Solidarity for all the countries is very important."
Tehran has been criticized in the past because some of its athletes withdrew from events against Israelis at the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Games.
Afsharzadeh also said Iran would "respect" a minute of silence if it was held in the opening ceremony to remember the 11 Israelis murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The International Olympic Committee, though, is currently rebuffing Israel's plea for the commemoration. "This case is for the IOC," Afsharzadeh said. "Everything from the IOC we respect."
Iran has 54 athletes in Britain for the games.
Despite the Iranian assertion that its athletes would compete against Israeli ones at the games, just hours earlier the Iranian team departed for London, leaving behind the lone athlete who had the possibility of facing an Israeli opponent.
On Sunday authorities had announced that Javad Mahjoob, a judo champion, is suffering from a "critical digestive system infection," forcing him to take antibiotics and not travel to the Games, which begin on Friday.
Mahjoob's absence has led to speculation that Iran is still maintaining its long-standing policy of not allowing its athletes to compete with Israeli opponents.
Mahjoob himself has acknowledged going to great lengths to keep from squaring off against an Israeli. In a 2011 interview with the Iranian newspaper Shargh, Mahjoob admitted to throwing a match against a German opponent, saying, "If I won I would have had to compete with an Israeli athlete. And if I refused to compete with the Israeli, they would have suspended our judo federation for four years."
Israel's judoka in the 100-kilogram weight class, Ariel "Arik" Ze'evi, will be competing in his fourth Olympic Games. The 35-year-old won a bronze medal at the 2004 Games in Athens, and is widely considered to hold one of Israel's best chances of taking home a medal in London.
Ze'evi told the Associated Press last month that he did not understand athletes who bring politics into the sporting arena. "When you are doing judo, football, basketball, you have to show up on the field, do your best. It doesn't matter who you fight," Ze'evi said. "For me, I don't have any problem to fight against a sportsman from any country, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria. ... I really don't understand it."
Iran has had a stated policy for years of avoiding competition with Israeli athletes. In 2004 and 2008, athletes cited injuries in withdrawing from events in which they would have had to face Israelis.
International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge declared last month that those days are over. Beginning in London, he said, those who sit out events based on their opponents' race, ethnicity or nationality will be punished.
"If nation A does not appear at the competition against nation B, we will ask for explanations," Rogge said. "If the explanation is not satisfactory and valid at the end of it and is not credible, then we will go into cross-examination by an independent medical board. And if the medical board says it is not a genuine reason, then sanctions will be taken. That is quite clear."
Days after the IOC announcement, Iranian Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs Mohammad Abbasi told the Islamic Republic News Agency that "not competing with Zionist athletes is one of the values and sources of pride of the Iranian people and its athletes."
It is unclear whether the IOC will look into Mahjoob's absence.
Israel Olympic Committee Chairman Zvi Varshaviak, who arrived in London on Tuesday, told Israel Hayom "With all due respect for what was reported, I don't believe Iranians will compete against Israeli representatives. I am sure that at the moment of truth, if they must face one of our athletes, they will suddenly experience a stomach pain and present a note from the doctor."
At this point, Iranian athletes are not scheduled to participate in competitions with Israeli athletes, although Iran may want to field a runner in the 400 meter competition, which will include Israel's Donald Sanford.