Iran’s weightlifting federation has imposed a lifetime ban on one of its athletes for shaking hands and taking a photo with an Israeli competitor at the World Masters Championship in Poland.
A violation of Iran’s policy
Mostafa Rajaei, 40, won the silver medal in his category at the event held in Wieliczka, Poland, on Saturday. He was seen on the podium standing next to the bronze medalist, Maksim Svirsky from Israel, and exchanging a handshake and a smile. The two athletes also posed for a picture together, holding their respective flags.
However, this friendly gesture was deemed unacceptable and unforgivable by Iran’s weightlifting federation, which announced on Wednesday that Rajaei has been banned from entering all sports facilities in the country for life. The federation also fired the head of the team at the contest, Hamid Salehinia, and dissolved a committee representing veteran weightlifters.
Iran does not recognize Israel as a legitimate state and forbids any contact or cooperation between Iranian and Israeli citizens. Iranian athletes are instructed to avoid competing against Israelis in international tournaments, and often resort to withdrawing or forfeiting matches to do so.
A history of defiance and defection
Rajaei is not the first Iranian athlete to face consequences for interacting with Israelis. In 2021, Iran’s judo federation was suspended for four years by the International Judo Federation after it was revealed that Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei was ordered to withdraw from the 2019 World Judo Championships to avoid facing an Israeli opponent. Mollaei later defected to Germany and obtained Mongolian citizenship.
In 2020, the International Chess Federation (FIDE) asked the Iranian Chess Federation to clarify its position on competing against Israelis, after several cases where Iranian chess players refused to participate in games with Israeli opponents or deliberately lost matches to avoid them. Some Iranian chess players, such as Alireza Firouzja and Sara Khadem, have also left the country and switched their nationalities to France and Spain respectively.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has urged athletes not to shake hands with Israelis in order to obtain a medal, saying that it would be “a sign of weakness”. He has also accused Israel of being a “cancerous tumor” that must be eliminated from the region.
A rare moment of sportsmanship
Rajaei has not commented publicly on his ban or his handshake with Svirsky. He posted a message on his Instagram account after the event, thanking everyone who helped him along the way and expressing his pride in representing Iran. He did not mention his Israeli rival or the photo they took together.
Svirsky has also not spoken about the incident, but he shared the photo with Rajaei on his Facebook page, along with other pictures from the championship. He received many positive comments from his friends and followers, who praised him for his sportsmanship and congratulated him on his achievement.
The photo of Rajaei and Svirsky has been widely circulated on social media, with some users applauding their display of respect and friendship, while others criticizing Rajaei for betraying his country and religion. Some have also compared the situation to the famous image of American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in a Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, which also resulted in their suspension from their national team.