Unfortunately, the world’s sports leaders’ opinions didn’t matter much. Accused of the murder of a security guard during protests against the government, Afkari’s alleged crime was not directly connected to his athletics or competition — although his sentencing was certainly due to his high national profile as an athlete.
Afkari’s death may hopefully serve a purpose in sport, as it now brings more attention to the broader complications of Iran on the global sports stage. The country has long made sports a platform for political expression, a provocation against the ideals of pure competition, outlined in places such as the Olympic Charter.
At the Athens 2004 Olympics, Iranian judoka Arash Miresmaeili no-showed for his first round 66-kilogram match and was promptly disqualified. For an athlete who was his nation’s flag-bearer at the Opening Ceremony, and already a two-time Asian Champion and two-time World Champion in that weight class, and maybe the favorite for the gold medal, such carelessness was surprising, at minimum.
Officially, Miresmaeili was reported as having failed a pre-match weigh-in. But surely something more nefarious than a reckless diet was afoot; his opponent in that first match was Ehud Vaks, an Israeli. Ahead of the competition, Miresmaeili lobbied a personal boycott of the tournament, in objection to Team Israel’s presence, and in support of Iran’s official antagonism against Israel. Had his official withdrawal been recorded as politically motivated — as he had threatened earlier — Iran’s judo federation would have faced discipline. Luckily for him, and for Team Iran, Games authorities and judo record books accepted his excuse and a deeper political scandal was avoided.
But this was surely at the expense of Team Israel’s dignity and a breach of the Olympic Charter, which prohibits politicization of competition and fair access. Most outrageously, Miresmaeili was congratulated back home and awarded the same governmental prize as gold medalists. He also was elected later as the president of Iran’s judo federation.
It was not the first time Israel has faced such protests on the athletic field. It wasn’t even the first in judo. In 2001, Hamed Malekmohammadi defaulted his match against Yoel Razvozov at the World Championships. And the list goes on — not just in judo, but swimming, taekwondo, fencing, badminton, and more. Other nationalities have been culprits as well, but Iranians far outpace others in these self-appointed boycotts.
Fast forward to 2019, when Iranian Saied Mollaei defected to Germany after not agreeing to withdraw from the Judo World Championships to avoid a potential matchup against Israeli Sagi Muki in the final. Other high-profile defections have occurred since as well.
Notably, Mollaei’s allegations of withdrawal pressure came after Iran reportedly agreed — directly to the International Judo Federation — to allow free competition against Israelis.
If that is true, a subsequent reassurance to the I.O.C. surely cannot be trusted by I.O.C. president Thomas Bach, can it? It would be convenient for Bach to believe it so. Chances are he’ll be tested on this in short order.
The refreshing chink in Iran’s boycott armor provided by Mollaei was buoyed by the subsequent indefinite suspension of Iran’s judo federation. (Note: the Iranians are appealing.)
Back to the present. As Afkari’s death shows, the Iranian government still does see sports figures as political pawns, and the temptation to do so again on the Olympic and world stage may be too much.
Currently, soccer World Cup organizers are under pressure to ensure Iran eases restrictions on women watching soccer live. This comes on the heels of Sahar Khodayari committing suicide after arrest when attempting to watch a men’s soccer match. Her crime? Just that — trying to watch a soccer game live. That this has prompted much belated scrutiny on upcoming World Cup qualifiers to be held in Iran is welcome.
Between backlash from Afkari’s and Khodayari’s deaths and the rising defections, perhaps momentum may be here to challenge Iranian status quo in abusing sports. Its sports must remain free of politicization, and the world’s sporting bodies must take advantage of this momentum. Organizations such as Global Athlete are trying to keep pressure on United World Wrestling and the I.O.C. following the Afkari tragedy, and the other groups must follow.
Iranian athletes excel internationally in judo, wrestling, weightlifting, volleyball, and more. They provide quality, passionate competition when allowed to do so. Its athletes should be free to compete and prove their mettle. They need the sporting community to hold Iran to the ideals of sport. As Joel Bouzou of the World Olympians Association says of athletes, “They possess the power to transcend sport to promote diversity, tolerance and positive values that make a difference everywhere.”
Let’s hope the time is now.