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Olympic sponsors must withdraw support if Iran is not banned

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In late January, the Islamic Republic executed a second young Iranian wrestler as part of its campaign against dissent. Mehdi Ali Husseini, who was just 29 years old, was killed only four months after the execution of Navid Afkari, 27, another wrestler, who’d participated in the nationwide protests in 2017-2018.  Both men might have been saved by the international athletic community, but tragically the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and United World Wrestling (UWW) failed to pressure Iran’s clerical rulers.

In this Olympic year, the time is ripe for major athletic sponsors, such as Coca Cola, Asics (a producer of wrestling shoes), and Airbnb — among others — to hold the IOC accountable for ignoring its Charter, which states, “The practice of sport is a human right.” The Charter also contains a clause barring discrimination based on “political or other opinion.”

Afkari’s murder captured the world’s attention for weeks, because the Iranian regime killed him simply for protesting against its corruption and injustice. The Trump administration, for its part, swiftly sanctioned judicial and prison officials who hanged Afkari. And then-presidential candidate Joe Biden condemned the Islamic Republic, declaring in a tweet, “Iran’s cruel execution of Navid Afkari is a travesty. No country should arrest, torture, or execute peaceful protestors or activists.”

Disturbingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Afkari’s words prior to his hanging remain prescient. “If I’m executed,” he said, “everyone should know that in the 21st century, despite all the funding and all the humanitarian organizations like the UN and the Security Council, an innocent person was executed even though he did all he could to fight and have his voice heard.”

The clerical regime’s lethal assault against its country’s athletes is meant to stifle dissent and sow terror among the population. Decorated wrestlers have been top targets of the regime’s hit list largely because wrestling is a historic national pastime, and its stars become celebrities with enormous followings.  

The clerical regime also executed the 30-year-old champion boxer and popular coach, Ali Mutairi, in late January for his alleged role in killing two Basij militiamen. Local sources and human rights groups said Mutairi was subjected to severe torture to confess to crimes he did not carry out. To avoid the raw repression of Khamenei’s system, many of Iran’s elite athletes have fled to Europe and the United States.

As a result of these brutal actions, Iranian athletes now living outside the country have urged the IOW and UWW and other sports federations to bar Iran from competition.

A ban would not mean that Iranian athletes could not compete at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics; rather, the athletes would perform under a neutral flag such as the IOC’s. This approach has a precedent: In 2019, the IOC, the Paralympics, and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) outlawed Russia from competition because of systemic doping violations. The non-doping athletes competed but not under the Russian flag.

The IOC, UWW and FIFA could also take a lesson from the International Ice Hockey Federation’s (IIHF) decision in January to pull the plug on Belarus as co-host of the men’s world championship. IIHF’s move came in response to the fraudulent reelection of Alexander Lukashenko as the president of Belarus in 2020 and the violent suppression of mass protests challenging him. Sponsors of the championship — Volkswagen’s Skoda Auto and Liqui Moly — responded to Lukashenko’s repression by withdrawing their endorsements.

Sadly, the leaders of the IOC and UWW have showed scarce empathy for the plight of persecuted athletes in Iran. Don’t Iranians deserve the same international sympathy as Belarussians?

It’s clear the IOC will not honor its Charter without pressure from its sponsors. What John Stuart Mill observed remains true: Evil wins when “good men should look on and do nothing.” Iranian athletes — the Iranian people — need a human-rights pressure campaign that moves the Westerners who dominate the IOC to do the only decent thing and boot the Islamic Republic from the Olympics.    

Alireza Nader is a senior fellow focusing on Iran and U.S. policy in the Middle East at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD), where Benjamin Weinthal is a research fellow. Follow them on Twitter @AlirezaNader and @BenWeinthal

Tags criminalizing dissent Execution of Navid Afkari Human rights in Iran International Olympic Committee International Olympic Committee Iran Joe Biden Olympic Games Sports state executions

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