Some athletes who formerly competed for their homeland Iran are asking the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to investigate their claims of abuse.
Iran has a history of treating female athletes inferior to their male counterparts, banning athletes from competing against Israel in international events, as well as threatening athletes who are involved with anti-government protests. Some athletes who have escaped to Western countries tell their stories.
Talking to CNN, Iranian judoka Vahid Sarlak says he is “100 percent fearful” about fighting for his beliefs. Iran does not tolerate freedom of speech and is known to pressure activists and their families in an intimidating manner, sometimes going as far as incarceration and torture. "Every day, my mom asks me not to do this, she is worried daily. But I say, 'I was born once, and I'll die once.' I have sworn that I'll fight for my freedom for as long as I'm alive."
Sarlak was competing in the 2005 World Judo Championships in Cairo for Iran when he was ordered by the Iranian Federation to lose so that he wouldn’t end up competing against an Israeli opponent in the next round.
Iranian karate champion Mahdi Jafargholizadeh attempted to escape the pressures of Iran by paying a smuggler to take him to Canada. He was a vocal critic of Iranian authorities. When his plan was foiled at the airport, he was arrested in 2004 and accused on suspicion of planning to be a spy for Israel, the BBC reports.
According to Jafargholizadeh, the next six months were literally torture, while he was detained and forced to confess to crimes he didn’t commit, which he refused to do. He was let go in 2005 with no explanations, told there had been a mistake, and was allowed to participate in elite karate tournaments again. Yet he no longer wanted to compete for Iran anymore, and became determined to leave behind his country for good.
In 2008, during a trip to Germany with the Iranian national team, he made his escape, then made his way to Finland and claimed asylum there. He was appointed the coach of Finland’s national karate team. He told the BBC he feels free. The Iranian authorities did not respond to inquiries by the news outlet.
Shiva Amini, a futsal [indoors, hard court football] player from Iran, was harassed in Iran and left for Switzerland. She faced many difficulties as a refugee, and eventually became a children’s coach according to IranWire.
Amini told IranWire that the women’s teams were underprivileged compared to the men’s teams and that they would suffer cramped living quarters, low-quality food during training and competitions and more.
She added that she was attacked for applying for asylum in a Western country: "They said I had applied for asylum in six countries, but all six countries refused. I was harassed in Switzerland, both by people who were connected to the Islamic Republic and also older Iranians, from scams to sexual abuse attempts." She went on to say that living in Switzerland was a lonely experience, and that she had to push herself to go on.
“They [the Iranian authorities] wanted to bury me under these pressures, but I stood up and fought. They said that I removed the hijab in order to become a refugee. I did not care. They said I was a second-rate player and that I would be forgotten; I still did not care.” She said she started playing football as soon as her Swiss paperwork was completed: “You do not know what it is like when a professional football player, who has no excess fat, loses 10 kilos due to stress and pressure. I lost 10 kilos of muscle. But I am back."
Amini also told CNN about the threats she received, downplaying their horror: "SMS messages, such as 'We will cut your head off and send a picture of it to your family.' Do you want just one example, or do you want to hear the rest?"
The execution of Navid Afkari
Some athletes were not as lucky as Jafargholizadeh or Amini. Navid Afkari, an Iranian wrestler, was executed following a murder charge in September 2020. The activist page unitedfornavid.org says that the real reason behind the authorities’ stance against Afkari was because he was a participant in 2018’s anti regime protests: “Navid’s case was shrouded in secrecy, a travesty of justice along with physical and psychological abuse in prison. Through torture, Navid was forced to confess that he had killed an undercover security guard during the protests, which has never been proven.”
Even Afkari’s family did not escape the grip of the Iranian authorities: “The regime even arrested Navid’s brothers, Vahid and Habib, both of whom were sentenced to 54 and 27 years, respectively.”
The international outcry and the messages of support from various organs and organisations such as the European Union, the International Olympic Committee, as well as the Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White, to spare his life were of no use.
Demands from the IOC
Wrestling champion and national coach Sardar Pashaei is one of the actors asking the International Olympic Committee to step up. He had to flee to the United States in 2009. According to the BBC, Pashaei cited arbitrary travel bans, state surveillance and career obstruction as his reasons for leaving. He believes his father’s political background may have been a reason for his ill treatment by the authorities.
Pashaei said that Iranian authorities had pressured him to make his best wrestler lose a match “to avoid facing an Israeli competitor in the next round.” Iran bans its athletes from competing against Israel, a country it does not recognise as legitimate.
The United for Navid organisation, “a group of prominent Iranian activists and athletes, led by women’s rights campaigner Masih Alinejad,” calls on international organizations, such as the IOC and FIFA to suspend Islamic Republic from international sports. According to the BBC the campaign has written three letters to the IOC urging the organisation to investigate 20 cases of alleged athlete abuse in Iran.
While Iranian authorities did not comment to the news organisation, the letter they received claims these cases show Iran has breached the Olympic charter, which commits organisers to “take action against any form of discrimination and violence in sport.” A spokesperson for the International Olympic Committee, who is reviewing the allegations, said if the OIC determined that were the case, an investigation would be started to “fully establish the facts and take the necessary measures."
Thumbnail photo: Iranian judoka Vahid Sarlak at the World Championships in Rotterdam, in a photo taken on August 26, 2009. He defected soon after. Tamas Zahonyi / International Judo Federation
Headline photo: Shiva Amini coaches an Italian boys' football team in this photo posted May 31, 2021. shiva_amini_11/Instagram