It didn’t take long for photographs of Iran’s Olympic uniforms to be circulated across social media, complete with the usual sprinkling of sarcastic commentary, dismay and frustration.

Iran’s Olympic team will wear the uniform at the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics on August 5. The Iranian public posted plenty of comments about Mahnaz Armin, the woman responsible for designing the uniforms, which some people have described as a mishmash of incompatible colors. Male athletes must wear a blue jacket, a pair of navy blue pants and an ochre-colored shirt. The uniform for Iran’s female athletes consists of a pair of black pants, a knee-length manteau and a black headscarf, which probably hides a shirt in some shade of ochre.

But the commotion over the outfits has drowned out other, more serious news about the Iranian Olympic team — news, for example, that the coaches of female athletes will not be accompanying their charges to Rio. First, champion shot put athlete Leila Rajabi was deprived of her coach. Then ping-pong player Neda Shahsavari was told she would be going to the Olympics without her coach, Sima Limoochi. Instead, the head of Iran’s Table Tennis Federation will be attending the Games.

Travel Chaos and Press Control

Then there was the news about the route Iranian athletes will take to Rio de Janeiro. Iran’s Olympics Committee has drawn up the travel plans, leading to mystified comments across social media.

First the athletes will fly from Tehran to Doha, the capital of the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar. After waiting at Doha airport from somewhere between three to seven hours, they will take off for Sao Paulo. After another few hours, they eventually set out for Rio. Nobody has objected to this round-about route, despite the fact that each extra flight means a few thousand dollars of unnecessary expenditure.

Then there’s the press. The Olympic Media Committee decides which reporters will go to the Olympics and which ones will not. So most of Iran’s media, especially government-run outlets, have kept their silence. Apart from a couple of independent news agencies and one newspaper, all of the media have supported Olympics Committee and the Ministry of Sports' decisions without question. This includes the decisions on the Olympic uniforms, which critics have said are unlikely to reflect well on the prestige of the Iranian team.

The “Positive” Side

Volleyball star Saeed Marouf was one of the first to object to the design of the outfits. “It would have been better if they surprised us with the outfits on the opening day,” he wrote on Instagram. “Of course, we should not overlook the positive side: They are so baggy that you can keep them and wear them at the next Olympics.”

Mohammad Mousavi, another member of Iran’s National Volleyball Team, published a photograph of himself wearing the suit the Olympics Committee had presented to the team. “Forget the colors,” he wrote. “The gentleman who came three times to measure me must have written the measurements in inches rather than in centimeters.”

The National Olympics Committee chose the colors. Shahrokh Shahnazi, the secretary of the committee, was responsible for the outfits. For the moment, he has remained silent, but Mahmoud Abdollahi, the committee’s public relations director, told the state-run News Network: “The color blue evokes the turquoise waters of the Persian Gulf.” When the news anchor reminded him that blue might evoke the color of any sea, he had this irrefutable answer: “Yes, that is so.”

Mahmoud Abdollahi is also the man responsible for deciding which reporters will be sent to Rio to cover the Olympics. During his decision-making process over the last two years, reporters from independent media outlets have been completely sidelined.

When the wave of criticism began, all eyes turned toward Chinese company Li Ning, which signed a sponsorship deal with the National Olympic Committee in January. The contract designates Li Ning as the sole provider of 1,300 sets of training and sportswear for the Iranian Olympic team. The company’s go-between was Bahram Afsharzadeh, the former secretary of the Iranian Olympics Committee. The contract also stipulated that Iran would not pay for the sportswear, and that Li Ning would simply cover the costs of releasing shipments from Iranian customs.

Li Ning’s representative in Iran wasted no time to refute accusations, denying that Li Ning played any role in the design of the uniforms. “Our company has been responsible only for providing sportswear and sweat suits,” he said, adding that his company would be ashamed to list the Olympic Committee-approved uniforms as one of their products.

The Chinese sportswear is ready, and the athletes have already worn some of the clothes. Nobody had any complaints — but when the national uniforms were revealed, it was another matter. Athletes will be required to wear these uniforms not only at the opening ceremony, but also whenever they are in the Olympic village.

Blue-and-Red Erasers

On his Instagram page, Iranian actor Rambod Javan compared the suits to the blue-and-red erasers he used in school. But these “erasers” cost the Olympics Committee a great deal more. The committee had ordered 2,000 suits — 1,100 for men and 900 for women. The plan was to adopt these uniforms within a couple of years so that all Iranian athletes would wear them at all international sporting events. The Olympics Committee committed itself to pay 880,000 tomans, or close to $290, for each suit. This is, of course, the same committee that supported the Ministry of Sports and various Iranian sports federations when they announced there was no budget to send the coaches of woman athletes including Leila Rajabi and Neda Shahsavari to Rio.

The outfit’s designer, Mahnaz Armin, was a dress designer in Istanbul for three years and received her degree in fashion design in Turkey. She has prior experience working with the Iranian National Olympics Committee, as well as with other sporting bodies. Armin began working with Iran's National Olympic Committee when Ali Kafashian was its secretary-general and later worked with the track and field and football federations.

In 2014, Armin was responsible for the original controversial design of the Iranian national football team jerseys for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil — a design that FIFA eventually rejected. The jerseys featured a cheetah, which gained support from environmental activists because it raised awareness of one of Iran’s most treasured endangered species. But FIFA ruled that the design violated federation regulations.

In an interview with Fars News Agency in summer 2015, Armin announced that, for the first time, Iran’s female athletes would go to the Olympics in beautiful, impressive uniforms that symbolize Iranian culture.

Cultural Identity....or Just Tasteless?

IranWire asked Armin to comment on the most recent controversy, but she declined. In an interview with the sports publication Bank-e Varzesh, she denied that she had anything to do the design of the Olympic uniforms and that the committee bore full responsibility. But a month earlier, she had told Fars News Agency, “the design of the outfit for woman athletes at the Olympics must reflect the cultural identity of Iran. This outfit of manteau, pants and headscarf has been designed to honor the Iranian female athletes participating in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.”

Critics have found their way to the designer’s Instagram page, but Armin has largely ignored it, whether it has come from members of the public or the Olympic athletes themselves. “People have nothing to do so they want to amuse themselves,” she told Bank-e Varzesh.

State-run media outlets have not only refrained from criticizing the uniforms, they have not reported any other critical remarks. But nonetheless, the news is out. And recently there have been rumors that the Ministry of Sports have called for Iranian athletes to attend the Olympics opening ceremony wearing their Chinese-made sweat suits. In addition to this, a grassroots campaign has called for people to post their own designs online. Campaigners argue that these designs prove that it is possible to work within the restrictions Mahnaz Armin has had to work, and still manage to have some taste. 

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