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Opinion: How sports stars are forwarding the protests in Iran

The bond between athlete and fan carries through in the Iranian protests

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Iranians protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police in September in Tehran, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022.

Associated Press

Since mid-September, protests opposing Iran’s despotic rule have swept over the country. Among the protesters are Iranian athletes who pose a particular threat to the current regime in two ways. They embolden young Iranians by supporting their protests despite the grave danger, and their influence reaches beyond Iran’s borders to the world at large, amplifying the protesters’ voices. 

Most Iranian protesters are ages 15 to 21. Most cherish their sports heroes. In turn, many Iranian athletes support the protesters. 

The regime recognizes the threat of this symbiosis but has been unable to quash it. One feeble tactic was to shut down the internet, hoping an absence of social media would blunt the athletes’ influence. It hasn’t. Even when the government has forced teams to play in empty stadiums and arenas, it has failed to break the bond of athlete and fan, and protesters have honored their athletes in public spaces, cheering them on for demanding a better future for Iran.

Nevertheless, the government is so far unbending. One tactic is their draconian measures against female athletes, using the government agencies that oversee Iranian sports. No matter the sport, whether the female athletes are playing volleyball or running track, they must cover their hair with a scarf (hijab) as a symbol of religious devotion. This stricture applies at home and abroad. 

In October 2022, Elnaz Rekabi, a rock climber, openly defied the regime when she competed in South Korea without a hijab. When she returned home, she was greeted at the airport by thousands of her defiant supporters. In addition, millions of social media posts complimented her bravery. Unfortunately, she is now reportedly under house arrest.

Another stricture prohibits married female athletes from leaving Iran without their husband’s permission. In September 2021, the husband of Niloufar Ardalan, the captain of the Iranian women’s soccer team, prohibited her from traveling to Malaysia to compete. Similarly, in February 2022, the husband of Samira Zargari, Iran’s women’s ski team coach, prevented her from attending a competition in Italy. Dozens of female athletes have had to put up with this restriction. According to Shaghayegh Bapiri, an Iranian handball player who defected to Spain in 2021, “There is no future for women handballers if conditions remain unchanged.” 

Female sports fans are also affected by the discriminatory laws of the Islamic Republic. For example, women have been prohibited from attending male only matches for the past 43 years. One fan, Sahar Khodayari, was so passionate about her soccer team that she disguised herself as a boy to watch their matches in person. In 2019 she was arrested and imprisoned for violating this prohibition. She set herself on fire and died, a tragedy caused by oppressive government policies.

While Khodayari did not get the international attention she deserved at the time, today her story is well known, and Iranian female protesters march under the slogan of “Women, Life & Liberty,” hoping to abolish the misogynistic laws that led to her death. 

Iranian male athletes have expressed solidarity with Iranian women. With millions of followers on social media accounts, a single post from a prominent athlete can motivate thousands of protesters to pour into the streets.

One such post came from Ali Karimi, a prominent soccer player with over 13 million followers on Instagram. When Mahsa Amini died following her arrest by the morality police for not wearing a hijab, Karimi condemned the suspicious circumstances of her death, writing that “not even holy water could wash away this disgrace.” Immediately after his post, the government retaliated by seizing his house and all his properties in Iran. In response, Karimi, who lives in the United Arab Emirates, stayed defiant, writing, “This is a small sacrifice for the Iranian people.” He has continued to encourage the protesters, and his name frequently appears in slogans. 

Other male athletes have also expressed their support. When Sardar Azmoun, a soccer icon who played for Bayern Munich, scored the equalizer for Iran’s national team in a run-up game to the World Cup, he refused to celebrate it. It was his way to honor the protesters. His post on his Instagram account with over 5 million followers stated that if he were eliminated from the national team for his protest, it was “a small price to pay for even a single strand of Iranian women’s hair.” The security forces of the regime deleted his post, fearing the reaction. 

Prominent Iranian wrestlers are also supporting the protests, including former head coach Rasoul Khadem, freestyle champion Ali Goudarzi, former head freestyle coach Mohammad Talaii, Olympic champion Amirhossein Zaareh, and Hamid Sourian, a prominent Greco-Roman wrestler who resigned from his position as vice president of the Iranian Wrestling Federation in protest. Khadem’s passport has been confiscated for the posts defending the protesters.

Those brave Iranian wrestlers seem unfazed by the warnings of Alireza Dabir, president of the Iranian Wrestling Federation, who is a hardliner supporting the Iranian government.  

At its best, sports provide a universal language and create an international community, erasing boundaries of regional, religious, social and political differences. In this regard, the International Olympic Committee and other international sports organizations need to ensure that as long as the Islamic Republic imposes draconian restrictions on its people, it will not be welcome to compete in international sports. Iranian athletes seem willing to make that sacrifice. Otherwise, their achievements as athletes will pale against the glare of repression.

Bahman Baktiari is the Executive Director of the Baskerville Institute in Salt Lake City.