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Iran banned from world judo until it agrees to face Israel

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — Iran was banned from international judo competitions Tuesday for refusing to let its athletes fight Israeli opponents.

The International Judo Federation imposed an indefinite ban on Iran’s team until it promises to end a long-running boycott of Israel.

The IJF’s disciplinary commission said the ban will stand “until the Iran Judo Federation gives strong guarantees and prove that they will respect the IJF Statutes and accept that their athletes fight against Israeli athletes.”

The commission said Iran broke rules on non-discrimination and the manipulation of competition results.

The ruling comes after 2018 World champion Saeid Mollaei walked off the Iranian team in August, saying he had been ordered to lose matches and withdraw from competitions so as not to face Israelis.

The IJF accused Iranian government officials of putting pressure on athletes including Mollaei, who is now in hiding in Germany. Iran has already missed some events because it was provisionally suspended last month pending the full disciplinary ruling.

The IJF has previously said any measures taken against Iran won’t apply directly to next year’s Olympics, because athletes are technically entered by the Iranian Olympic Committee, not the national judo federation.

However, qualifying for the Olympics depends in large part on world ranking points from IJF events.

Iran can appeal the IJF ruling to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The measure comes at a time when the International Olympic Committee is pushing back against boycotts and other political demonstrations in sports.

In June, IOC President Thomas Bach criticized governments who “clearly abuse sport for their political purposes,” noting a case in May of a Tunisian court blocking four Israelis from competing at the world junior taekwondo championships.

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Israel’s baseball team turned to Shlomo Lipetz for the biggest out in program history

Israel Baseball
Margo Sugarman
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As Israel led by 10 runs and had one out left to clinch its first Olympic baseball berth, manager Eric Holtz made a pitching change. He called on 40-year-old Shlomo Lipetz, a sidearm right-hander with a beard and mullet who had not appeared in any of the team’s four previous games in its Olympic qualification tournament.

“Shlomo was born and raised in Israel,” Holtz said in an email early Monday morning from Italy, where the joint Africa-Europe tournament was held. “He has put in over 30 years into the growth and development of this program. He played on fields that did not exist. Soccer fields transformed into some sort of diamond. He exemplifies what we are trying to show and prove to the youth in Israel. That if you work hard and put your time in, that even homegrown Israelis have an opportunity to do something special.

“Given the right opportunity there was no question that he would hold the baseball at the end of the game. He’s special to the team and he special [sic] to the kids in Israel.”

Lipetz, a vice president for booking musical acts at City Winery based in New York City, forced a flyout from the second South African batter. Israel won 11-1. Teammates dogpiled Lipetz on the mound in one of Israel’s greatest sporting moments.

“It slowly starts sinking in and repeating, again and again, that this great group of people are all going to be Olympians,” Lipetz, profiled by the Wall Street Journal in 2012, said by phone late Sunday night while celebrating the victory. “The feeling is disbelief and happiness, excitement. It’s a bunch of emotions, but it’s really hard to believe. The odds were so against us that you kind of train your mind not to have your mind wander there.”

The 2020 Olympic baseball tournament — the first since 2008 and the last until, at the earliest, 2028 — will feature six nations. Israel was ranked 41st in the world before its captivating 2017 World Baseball Classic run that included wins over the Netherlands, South Korea, Chinese Taipei and Cuba.

By this year, that ranking was up to No. 19. But Israel still had to qualify for the Olympic qualifier. It went through a July European Championships b-pool event, beating Greece, Serbia, Russia, Ireland and host Bulgaria in front of listed attendances of fewer than 100 people per game and “a field carved out of a mountain,” Lipetz said. “With sheep.”

Then it won a playoff at Lithuania — “in the middle of a horse racing track, and right field was 270 feet” — just to get into the top-flight Euros earlier this month. At Euros, Israel was the fourth-ranked team going in and went 5-3 to finish fourth, good enough to advance to the Africa/Europe Olympic qualifier, but far from a favorable position. Only the winner of the Africa/Europe qualifier would clinch a place in Tokyo.

So Israel went to Italy for the qualifier and proceeded to avenge those three defeats to Spain, the Netherlands and Italy in its first three games. All it needed was one more win Saturday against the Czech Republic or Sunday against South Africa.

When Israel’s most recognizable name, former MLB infielder Danny Valencia, smacked a three-run home run in the top of the eighth on Sunday, it had an 11-1 lead. The 10-run mercy rule would come into effect to end the game an inning early, assuming Israel could close it out. The plan all along was for Lipetz to get that chance.

“Symbolic, I would say,” said Lipetz, who called himself part of Israel’s first generation of baseball players and was one of four Israel-born players on the 24-man roster. “The personal achievement aside, I represent in a lot of ways what Israel baseball is and what it can potentially be.

“One of the first things that came to mind when I was throwing that last pitch — if I can be a role model for any players on this team, can be a role model for a 10-year-old Israeli watching this on TV for the first time, then that really is everything I want because I never had that Israeli role model.”

Lipetz, born and raised in Tel Aviv, said there were no pitching mounds where he grew up. He practiced on soccer fields. Still, he was one of the first players to get a special athletic scholarship in the military. He played for Team Israel for the first time in 1989, at a Little League World Series qualifier on a German military base.

He moved to the U.S. at age 21 to play college ball in San Diego in the early 2000s. He was part of that 2017 World Baseball Classic team that included a mascot, “Mensch on a Bench,” that did not make the trip for the Olympic qualifier.

“Stuck in customs,” Lipetz joked.

That 2017 WBC team included many players who were not Israel citizens, a requirement for the Olympics. Lipetz was the only Israel-born player, but he did not see game action.

All of the men who celebrated with Lipetz on Sunday have an Israeli ID.

“This, I think, tops [2017], all because when it comes down to it, we did it with a group of Israelis,” Lipetz said. “Yeah, some of them may have been born in the U.S., but today everyone was Israeli. That’s what Israel is all about.”

Lipetz believes most of the players on the qualifying team will be brought back for the Olympics, which is also 24 players, though he could not be sure that its oldest player will be kept one more year.

Lipetz turns 41 in February and would be one of the oldest baseball players in the sport’s short Olympic history (since 1992).

“Let them try,” to leave me off the team, he joked. “Anything can happen. I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to be part of Team Israel for so long. My role on this team is more than just throwing the last out or playing a game. It’s what makes the team what it is, basically the Israeli national team. I plan to continue to be part of the team one way or the other. I would like to think that I still have something to add as a sidearmer, late movement guy.”

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Israel is first nation to qualify for 2020 Olympic baseball tournament

Israel Baseball
Margo Sugarman
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Israel’s baseball team, which captivated at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, is headed to its first Olympics next summer.

Israel won a joint European-African tournament to become the first nation to qualify for baseball’s return to the Games after the sport was voted off the program after Beijing 2008.

It joins host nation Japan. Four more countries will qualify — two at the global Premier12 in November, another from the Americas and one more from a last-chance qualifier next year.

Israel, ranked 19th in the world, advanced via its best opportunity in Italy this week. It upset the highest-ranked European nations — the Netherlands (No. 8) and host Italy (No. 16) — and wrapped it up with an 11-1 win over South Africa on Sunday.

Its run came two years after Israel, then ranked 41st, beat South Korea, Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands and Cuba before bowing out of the World Baseball Classic. And one week after Israel finished fourth at the European Championship.

Israel’s roster at this week’s Olympic qualifier lacked many of the MLB veterans that it had at the World Baseball Classic. Israeli citizenship was not required at the WBC.

Its most recognizable player is Danny Valencia, an infielder who played parts of nine MLB seasons from 2010-18. Joey Wagman, its starting pitcher for its first and last games this week, plies his trade for the independent-league Milwaukee Milkmen.

MLB players are unlikely to feature at the Tokyo Games, but minor leaguers are expected to be eligible as in the past.

The rest of the Olympic field is likely to be nations from North America (such as the U.S., Cuba, Mexico or Canada) or Asia (South Korea, Chinese Taipei) or Australia.

Baseball will not be on the 2024 Olympic program but could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

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MORE: USA Baseball taps longtime catcher to be Olympic qualifying manager