Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Islamic regime in Iran has used sports and their finest athletes for their own political propaganda purposes – behavior completely antithetical to the values of athletic competition and events like the Olympic Games or the World Cup. Sadly, even when Iranian athletes are persecuted by their own government, these international sporting bodies have failed to hold Iran accountable. That needs to change.
With massive protests in Iran continuing for over a month, the people of Iran have been very clear in their agenda: regime change. Part of the motivation for that call to action, among other reasons, is years of abuse of professional athletes, continuing today. Iran’s regime has arrested, imprisoned, tortured and executed some of their most beloved athletes throughout the Ayatollah’s reign of terror.
For example, Olympic Taekwondo athlete Kimya Alizadeh became a refugee after refusing to compete with a hijab. Iranian judoka Saeeid Mollaei had to flee the country after the regime forced him to withdraw from facing Israeli Sagi Muki, and champion wrestler Navid Afkari, like many other professional athletes in Iran, was executed by the regime for his involvement in protests.
Countless athletes have been forced to throw away years of hard work and dedication to their sport by the Islamic regime because they happen to be facing an Israeli athlete in an international event – explicit discrimination on the basis of national origin that is completely against both FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) policies. But neither of these bodies have ever stood up for Iranian athletes.
It’s also important to note that Iran has not only used sporting events to persecute their own athletes, but they’ve used events like the Olympics to legitimize terrorists, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Javad Foroughi, who won a gold medal in the 2020 Olympics in shooting – something he learned to do while stationed in Syria for the regime.
Last week’s events proved no exception to Iran’s oppressive policies toward athletes. In the midst of all the protests, Iranian sport climber Elnaz Rekabi competed without the mandatory hijab during her competition in South Korea, in solidarity with her fellow Iranians and in honor of the slain Iranian woman who sparked the protests, Mahsa Amini. The Islamic regime’s response was to arrest her brother to lure her back to Tehran, then force her to make a statement condemning the protesters and clarifying that her hijab fell by accident. According to Iran International, she is now under house arrest.
How is Iran allowed in the Olympics, FIFA World Cup?
HOW IS it that a regime that exercises such brutal and oppressive control over athletes continues to be permitted to compete as a country in the Olympic Games or the World Cup?
For contrast, when Russia invaded Ukraine and began committing atrocious war crimes (which are now ongoing), FIFA reacted by banning Russia from participating in the World Cup. Why hasn’t FIFA done the same for a regime that persecutes not only their people but specifically targets their athletes? Why isn’t the international media outraged at the lack of accountability?
Even more disturbing, the discussion over banning the Islamic regime from the World Cup only came up in international conversation after it was discovered that the Islamic regime is sending suicide drones to Russia to bomb Ukrainian civilians, along with Iranian military personnel to train the Russians in how to use them.
While it’s a positive step that the world is beginning to notice and call for action, is it only when it involves the Russia-Ukraine war does the public pay attention? Iranian athletes are worthy of our defense in word and action, and now is the time to stand with them. In recent days, formal letters and petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures led by Iranian athletes themselves who have been forced to flee the country have been sent to FIFA, calling on the football body to ban Iran’s Islamic regime team from competing.
In fact, the vast majority of Iranians both inside and outside Iran support banning the regime’s team from the World Cup, even if that means athletes won’t get to compete. A poll of 40,000 Iranians that I conducted indicated that 87% support banning Iran from the World Cup.
It’s time for FIFA to step up and support the players and the integrity of the game they claim to represent by banning the Islamic regime in Iran from participating. This would send three important messages: The first, to the regime that their oppression of athletes will not be tolerated; the second, to other international sporting bodies that they should follow suit; and the third, to the world that we stand with Iranian athletes who have faced the wrath of their own government for decades.
The writer is a human rights activist and former internationally competitive figure skater.