This week the International Olympic Committee (IOC) unveiled the Olympic Refugee Team for the delayed Tokyo 2020 games. The list of 28 scholarship-holders from 11 countries, who trained in 13 separate host nations, has been in the making since 2018 and five Iranian athletes are now set to compete under the shared banner.
Among them are Saeed Fazlouli, a kayaker taken in by the German Sailing Federation, Canada-based karate champion Hamoon Derafshipour and judoka Javad Mahjoub, taekwondo practitioner Dina Pouryounes, who now resides in the Netherlands, and Kimia Alizadeh, another taekwondo star also based in Germany.
What are we to make of the fact that five Iranian asylum seekers have been selected for the IOC’s Refugee Team? Is their inclusion an honor for Iran – or the precise opposite?
The list of Iranian athletes who have emigrated from or fled Iran is growing every year. In 2009, four Iranian athletes infamously pulled out of the Fencing World Championships so as not to have to compete against Israeli opponents. Less well-reported was the fact that one of them, Mohammad Hossein Ebrahimi, subsequently disappeared while attending an event in France with the national team and went on to claim asylum in the Netherlands.
Since then, more and more names have been added to the roster of Iranian refugee athletes, who hail from all sorts of team and individual sporting backgrounds. Just a few recent examples from the worlds of chess, boxing and judo include Shohreh Bayat, Alireza Firouzja, Saeed Molaei, Dorsa Derakhshani, Borna Derakhshani, Sadaf Khadem, Mahyar Manshipour, Mobin Kahrazeh, Mohammad Rashnonejad, Mahmoud Zavieh, Pouria Pourabrahim, Ehsan Rajabi, Mina Alizadeh, Raha Shams, Raheleh Asmani and Vahid Sarlak.
Five Iranians have now been selected by the IOC to travel to Tokyo under its banner this summer, accounting for under 20 percent of the refugee team. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi hailed this week’s announcement as "show[ing] what is possible when refugees are given the opportunity to make the most of their potential”.
It was in March 2016, as the world was transfixed by the tidal wave of refugees making perilous journeys from war-torn states to Europe, that Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, announced the formation of the Refugee Team.
Bach said at the time that he knew the process of claiming asylum and being formally granted citizenship in European countries was not easy. Countless athletes who have fled their homelands the world over are locked out from the Olympic gates for the same reason. By forming this temporary team, Bach said, he wanted to make the world’s governments realize the value and importance of granting citizenship to refugees.
Initially the IOC had planned to send five former asylum-seeker athletes to the Rio Olympics. But in the end, a team of 10 athletes was sent to Brazil. Among them were sportspeople hailing from South Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo and Syria who had since resettled elsewhere.
At the time it was widely assumed the team’s presence would be symbolic. But at the IOC’s annual general meeting in 2017, it was agreed to make it permanent – perhaps on the basis that certain rulers had not changed, that certain war-torn parts of the Middle East and Africa remained so, and as such that there would always be more refugees.
This year’s roster was drawn from a longlist of more than 50 athletes around the world. Several other Iranian taekwondo fighters were on this initial list, including Ali Noghandous, based in Croatia, Amir Mohammad Hosseini in Germany, Dina Pouryounes Langroudi in the Netherlands, Ehsan Naghibzadeh in Switzerland, and Kasra Mehdi Pournejad in Germany.
For its part, Iran appears to be in complete denial about the situation. On February 4, 2020, at the closing ceremony of the country’s Fajr Cup weightlifting tournament, Minister of Sports Massoud Soltanifar told audiences that just “two or three” Iranian athletes had taken refuge in other countries. It followed previous comments by the sports minister in the aftermath of the November 2019 protests and the downing of Flight 752 in January, in which he claimed the mass emigration of Iranian athletes was a “rumor” fabricated by the “enemy”.
"The number of people who have emigrated is less than 10," he insisted at the time. "Those who have emigrated did so for a variety of reasons; either they are married or they have gone to continue their education, or have gone to compete on the invitation of a club. Naturally, they still compete for their national teams when needed."
The IOC’s list shows otherwise. And as Bach said this week, its publication sends “a powerful message of solidarity, resilience and hope to the world”. The full names and biographies of the IOC Refugee Olympic Team members can be found here.