The following article was written by an Iranian citizen journalist on the ground inside the country, who writes under a pseudonym to protect his identity.
The World Wrestling Union (WWU), the international governing body for amateur wrestling, has written to national wrestling federations reminding them that the union is a part of the Olympic Movement, and therefore its members must uphold and honor the values and ideals of the movement.
For Iranian wrestling, the announcement has two potential outcomes: Either it will trigger a new crisis in Iranian sports or put an end to four decades of counterproductive political interference in sports.
The new decree by WWU is signed by its Secretary General Michel Dusson. “Following certain incidents at some international competitions,” the letter begins, “it must be pointed out that competition organizers, national federations, their members (wrestlers, referees, coaches, doctors, physiotherapists and others) and their superiors are part of the Olympic Movement and thus must remain faithful to the Olympic ideals inspired by Pierre de Coubertin.”
Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin (1863-1937), was a French historian, educator and a founder of the International Olympic Committee. He is considered the father of the modern Olympic games and believed they can promote peace among nations. The Olympic motto of “Faster, Higher, Stronger” comes from Coubertin, as does the Olympic flag of five interlocking rings of blue, yellow, black, green and red — representing the five continents of Africa, Asia, America, Oceania and Europe — against a white background. “The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well” was how he described the ideal of athletic competitions.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), as the custodian of all international sports federations, requires federations to respect its ideals. As a “Fundamental Principle of Olympism,” the committee charter clearly states that the “enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, color, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” and adds: “Belonging to the Olympic Movement requires compliance with the Olympic Charter” [PDF].
Article 3 of the charter of the International Football Federation (FIFA) repeats the principle of the IOC’s charter almost word for word: “Discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of ethnic origin, gender, language, religion, politics or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion” [PDF].
Iranian Federation on Notice
Now, at the threshold of the Asian Wrestling Championships, which will decide who the contenders will be for the forthcoming 2020 Olympics, the World Wrestling Union has come forward with the same requirements. It has also put some national federations, especially the Iranian federation, on notice.
The WWU has specified four absolute requirements for its member federations:
1. Respecting human dignity as a key Olympic requirement.
2. Avoiding any discrimination based on national origin, race, religion, beliefs, politics, or family situations.
3. Avoiding any harmful psychological or physical action against participating individuals.
4. Avoiding any kind of doping at any level. The rules of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) will be strictly enforced.
But for Iran, the most problematic demand is the decree’s second requirement. It states that if athletes refuse to compete against their competitors for any reason except strictly sports-related ones, they should expect the maximum punishment. This time the WWU has not only specified reasons such as national origin, race, and religion, but also “family situations” — closing all possible escape routes for Iranian athletes and as a way of rejecting all excuses that relate to anything other than physical conditions.
For almost four decades, Iranian sport has been entangled in the Islamic Republic’s hostility toward Israel. However, this was not always the case. In 1983, the FILA World Wrestling Championships were held in Kiev, which was part of the Soviet Union in those days, and Iranian and Israeli wrestlers came face to face. The Iranian Greco-Roman wrestler Bijan Seifkhani went to the mat against Robinson Konashvili from Israel in the 74-kilo category and won 7-4.
After this victory, Seifkhani ranked ninth in the world. The newspaper Kayhan and its sports supplement published articles celebrating the success and praising him as a great champion because he had defeated an Israeli athlete. Kayhan’s editors seemed unaware that this would mark the end of the era when Iranian athletes could compete against Israeli athletes.
Reprimanded for Winning
Immediately after the news of Seifkhani’s victory, the then-foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati (now an advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei) ordered the Iranian team to return to Iran immediately. Iranian wrestlers received the order late at night. The coaches went room to room, woke up the wrestlers one by one and told them to pack because they had to return to Tehran. And when they arrived back, all members of team, athletes and non-athletes alike, and especially Seifzadeh, were severely reprimanded.
Then the Iranian government made a categorical announcement: No Iranian athlete was to compete against “Zionists” under any condition, whether in official competitions or unofficially. The justification was that Iran did not recognize Israel as a state and it was defending the Palestinian people.
This restrictive political interference continues today. A flagrant example occurred in 2017, claiming as its victim the Iranian freestyle wrestler Alireza Karimi. During the Wrestling Under-23s World Championship hosted by Poland from November 21 to November 26, 2017, Alireza Karimi was just about to beat his Russian opponent Alikhan Zhabrailov when his coach stood close to the mat and shouted out: “Lose, Alireza! You must lose. Do not win, Alireza!”
It must be unprecedented in the history of sports for a coach to call out such enthusiastic encouragement for one of his mentees to lose. But the reason was simple: Had he left the mat a champion, Karimi’s next match would have been against the Israeli wrestler Uri Kalashnikov — a red line that an Iranian athlete was not allowed to cross.
The One who Stood up
After this event, both the World Wrestling Union and International Olympic Committee threatened Iran’s Wrestling Federation with expulsion. Rasoul Khadem, the head of Iran’s Wrestling Federation, was the only high-level Iranian sports official who dared to stand up against this policy and directly called on both the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the Supreme National Security Council to change this unwritten law. For this, he was forced to resign.
On March 3, 2018, Khadem issued a statement urging Iranian politicians not to sacrifice the country’s national champions to further their own political agenda, adding that he had resigned on February 28 because of what he described as “the politicization of Iranian sports.” He also accused Iranian officials of “lying,” being indifferent to “Iran’s national champions” and their standing in the world, and said that state officials seemed to regard the performance of Iranian athletes as no more than a kind of entertainment for the people.
After his resignation, the entire Iranian wrestling technical staff and the heads of wrestling teams offered their resignation in solidarity with him, forcing sports officials to find a way to placate him so that he would return to his job. He returned in April, and others retracted their resignations as well. But the question of the ban on Iranians competing against Israeli athletes remained unresolved.
Now the WWU has made it clear that it will not tolerate any more of such behavior. According to the rules communicated to national federations on Friday August 31, the punishment for refusing to compete, except for physical reasons, is as follows:
- Wrestlers: Disqualification from competitions; three-year suspension from international competitions.
- Coaches: One-year suspension from international competitions.
- Federations: A fine of 5,000 Swiss francs.
Iranian wrestlers are due to take part in three international tournaments from September 2018 to February 2019. According to Rasoul Khadem, it is quite possible that they will have to fight against Israeli athletes. The WWU has threatened that it could suspend Iran’s Wrestling Federation if the ban on competing against Israeli wrestlers continues. As the Asian Wrestling Championships and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics approach, this possibility must give Khadem many sleepless nights.
Mansour Razavi, Citizen journalist
Read more about Iran’s ban on competing against Israeli athletes:
Guards: Don’t Compete with Israelis or We’ll Break Your Legs, March 6, 2018
Wrestler Forced to Lose to Avoid Competing Israeli, November 30, 2017
Chess Grandmaster's Brother Also Abandons Iran, October 6, 2017
Iranian Footballers Make History by Defying Israel Ban, August 4, 2017
Will Iran be Banned from the World Cup?, August 13, 2017
The Fear of Competing Against Israel, February 24, 2017