Make Sports, Not War: Israeli and Iranian Special Olympics Teams Play Nice

In a rare show of sportsmanship, delegations from Israel and Islamic Republic overcome national tensions to bond over their common interest – sports.

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Israeli and Iranian athletes at 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles
Israeli and Iranian athletes at 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles Credit: Courtesy of Israeli Delegation to the Special Olympics

This year's Special Olympics World Games – taking place in Los Angeles – was host to over 6,500 athletes with special needs from 165 nations from around the world, including those with less than friendly relations.

The most prominent of those might be Israel and Iran: two countries that do not have diplomatic relations and are considered by many to be arch-enemies, locking horns over a host of issues - most recently a nuclear deal which will see Iran freed from sanctions imposed by world powers in return for curbing its nuclear program.

However, in a rare show of mutual sportsmanship, the two nations' delegations to the international event found common ground and bonded, even breaking diplomatic protocol and posting pictures of Israeli athletes alongside Iranian ones.

"At the Special Olympics there is peace," the Israeli delegation wrote in a post on its Facebook page.

"During the different competitions at this year's world games, exciting and emotional encounters with athletes from countries that do not have diplomatic ties with Israel are taking place. Such encounters do no happen every day," they wrote alongside a picture of bicyclist Alon Dolev and an Iranian rider identified as Yaser Tahmasbi.

There was also a photograph of Reuven Astrachan, head of the Israeli delegation, hugging his Iranian counterpart, Asghar Dadkhah, along with other photos posted with the words "make sport not war."

שמים את הפוליטיקה בצד, Make sport not war

According to GOOD Magazine, the two delegations first began interacting when they found themselves stuck together on a cross-Atlantic flight from France to Los Angeles en route to the competition.

“We were sitting next to each other and it was a twelve-hour flight,” Astrachan told the magazine, recalling the first instance the Israelis saw the Iranian team with their national gear on. “So what do you do for twelve hours? You talk. You talk to your neighbor.”

About what? Sports, of course, Astrachan and his Iranian counterpart said. “The only thing they think about is their sport,” explained Dadkhah, who heads the Iranian team.

The connection seemed to have caught the attention of the games' organizers, who decided to orchestrate the official torch passing ceremony so that the Iranian representative would pass the torch on to an Israeli, and so it was.

In the past, Iran has been one of the most vocal of Muslim nations to have boycotted sporting events involving Israel. In 2011, the Iranian National Olympic Committee reportedly issued a statement saying it was "a general policy of our country, to refrain from competing against athletes of the Zionist regime," explaining why Iranian judoka Arash Miresmaeili failed to face off against an Israeli during the 2004 Summer Olympics.

The most recent such incident was reportedly a volleyball match scheduled for July 21 in Japan, and forfeited by the Iranian team, citing alleged injuries by its athletes. National teams and athletes competing in Olympic events can face sanctions for boycotting meets for political reasons.

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