The Last Word: The Iranian threat

The Last Word The Irani

The old adage that sports and politics should never mix rarely rings true. For decades the connection has been all but unavoidable, with the 1936 Berlin Olympics and American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games representing just the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes these decisions are justified - the international sporting ban of Apartheid South Africa is believed to have had a significant impact on the country's move towards ending the discriminatory system. More often than not, however, they are an unwelcome and unnecessary intrusion. While national teams should be held accountable for their countries' actions outside the sporting arena, individual athletes from those countries should not be forced to grapple with these issues on the courts or fields of play. Never has this been better illustrated than in Memphis this week. Israel and Iran may be in the midst of a military standoff, with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regularly spouting anti-Israel rhetoric, but this international tension somehow had no effect on two young NBA players who hail from the Middle Eastern countries. In the build-up to Monday night's game between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Sacramento Kings, Israeli Omri Casspi and Iranian Hamed Haddadi seemed to have no problem posing together for photographers. Casspi, who made his debut for the Kings this season, is the first Israeli to play in the NBA, while Haddadi, who is in his second year at the Grizzlies, is the first Iranian to play in the world's greatest basketball league. Despite the problems their countries are having, Casspi and Haddadi used the opportunity to teach the world a lesson. Without their uttering even a single verbal statement on the issue, the message was loud and clear - the basketball stars showed that they simply see each other as fellow human beings rather than representatives of a political dispute. This positive image contrasted starkly with the outpouring of hate and negativity which was reported to have come from Egyptian soccer star Amr Zaki, also this week. According to numerous media reports, ex-Wigan striker Zaki turned down a move from top Egyptian team Zamalek to English Premier League side Portsmouth because he could not stomach working alongside Israelis or Algerians. "I refused their offer before, but now joining Portsmouth is no longer an option for me. After Portsmouth signed an Israeli player [Tal Ben-Haim] and also hired an Israeli football director [Avraham Grant], a possible move was ruled out," Zaki was reported to have said on his personal Web site. "On top of that, no way could I play at Portsmouth with an Algerian within their ranks." Looking beyond the fact that Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty more than 30 years ago, it is despicable for a soccer player from the Middle East to avoid playing in one of the top leagues in the world for racist reasons. Zaki would do well to get in contact with Haddadi and find out why he has no problem standing alongside an Israeli. It is the striker himself who will end up losing out, not the players and coach who will continue to work at their sport's highest level and get paid many thousands of pounds to do so. Ben-Haim even played alongside an Iranian when midfielder Andranik Teymourian was at Bolton Wanderers in 2006, at the same time, incidentally, as fellow Israeli Idan Tal was plying his trade at the Reebok Stadium. On the other hand, the correct place for politics in sports is on the international stage. Where issues such as abuses of human rights are concerned, powerful sporting bodies such as the International Olympic Committee and FIFA have a responsibility to take a stand. Unfortunately these institutions seem more concerned about money than morals. Awarding the 2008 Olympic Games to serial human rights abuser China was wrong in so many ways, and it has been plainly evident in the year-and-a-half since the closing ceremony that little changed as a result of the world's focus on Beijing last summer. Rather than rewarding countries which flaunt their disdain of the international community, the governing bodies should make an example of them. For this reason, an international sporting ban must be imposed on Iran, the country which is most responsible for threatening world peace. Fortunately Iran did not qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, so the world will avoid seeing a repeat of the scenes which plagued the 2006 tournament, when Ahmadinejad attempted to use the success of his country's national team to promote himself and his political colleagues. There is no reason that modern day Iran should be treated any differently to Apartheid South Africa. Allowing Iran to continuously compete as a recognized sporting nation makes a mockery of the ethics and values sports claims to pursue and promote. While Iranian sportsmen should have no problems working abroad, it is up to the world to finally step up and show its disgust with the country's abhorrent leaders.