The Iranian Ski Federation has received billions of tomans’ worth of guarantees from members of the national cross-country skiing team, who yesterday boarded a plane to Oberstdorf, Germany for the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships.
This wasn’t to cover flights, documentation or hotels. According to a source in the Ski Federation, all but two members of the team had been asked to guarantee a 2.5 billion toman “bail” [$104,000] in a bid to ensure that they will not try to flee Iran from Germany.
The other two athletes were made to provide a bigger deposit worth five billion tomans [$208,000] each, which could comprise all or part of their personal or family homes. Athletes were asked to provide these guarantees on Tuesday, February 16, a day before dispatch, and to deliver it to the intelligence department at the Ski Federation.
The 2021 World Ski Championships are due to run from February 23 to March 7 and will see top athletes from all over the world compete in ski jumping, cross-country skiing and Nordic combined in the snow-covered German Alps.
The Iranian Ski Federation announced the names of its national cross-country team on Tuesday, February 16. The male athletes are Seyed Sattar Sayd, Daniel Saveh-Shemshaki, Yasin Shemshaki and Alireza Moghdid, and the female skiers are Samaneh Beyrami-Bahr, Sahel Tir, Farzaneh Rezasoltani, and Zahra Saveh-Shemshaki.
Yesterday the plight of the women’s coach, Samira Zargari, made headlines after she was been banned by her husband from leaving the country along with her teammates. Meanwhile, according to a well-informed source, the rest of the team have been made to provide material guarantees meant to ensure their return.
The intelligence division of the Ski Federation sought these commitments on the order of the Ministry of Sports and Youth. The two athletes that were ordered to offer up 5 billion tomans’ worth of property were Yasin Shemshaki and Alireza Moghdid.
In a briefing with the national team members, officials in the Ski Federation informed them that the decision had been taken due to concerns about the possible “defection” of athletes in Germany. If they attempt to settle abroad, their homes in Iran could be collateral.
The decision was not taken in a vacuum. Before the coronavirus outbreak disrupted international sports competitions, the Iranian National Olympic Committee and the Ministry of Sports and Youth had cancelled many athletes and sports teams’ overseas trips due to fears about their claiming asylum in the host country. Iran's national badminton, wrestling, chess and gymnastics teams have all lost out in recent years.
The institutional paranoia, in turn, might be well-founded. In the last three years many Iranian athletes and sportspeople have deserted their country of birth, seeking asylum and accepting the offer of new nationalities mostly in European countries. Among them were chess masters Alireza Firouzja, Dorsa and Borna Derakhshani, Mitra Hejazipour, Ghazal Hakimifard and Shohreh Bayat, Olympian judoka Saeed Molaei, boxing champion Mobin Kahrazeh and taekwondo practitioner Kimia Alizadeh: Iran’s only female Olympic medallist. Their reasons for doing so were myriad, but most revolved around either mandatory hijab or their having been prevented by the Iranian authorities from competing against Israelis abroad.
These defections have had consequences for Iran. Not only has the country lost some of its star players, but the Iranian Judo Federation was recently suspended by the International Olympic Committee after it emerged that Saeed Molaei had been forced to lose a round in the 2019 Tokyo World Championships Olympics so as not to later compete against an Israeli. This constituted a clear incident of political interference in sports.
Last June, the Iranian Parliamentary Research Center published a report that stated at least 38 athletes had emigrated from Iran in the past 20 years. But it also contentiously claimed that the connivances of “enemies” were what lay behind the defections, including efforts to show the weakness of the country’s management and to seduce top athletes to emigrate. The granting of visas, asylum and citizenship to Iranian refugee sportspeople was also portrayed as an “enemy” plot against sports in Iran.
Ever since then, the Ministry of Sports has been at pains to prevent more athletes from defecting. But in the case of the Iranian ski team, why should two of the players have been made to provide guarantees twice as costly as those of their teammates?
It transpires that both Yasin Shemsaki and Alireza Moghdid have tried to leave their home country before. In August 2016, some Iranian media published news that Yasin Shemshaki and his wife had claimed asylum in Sweden. Not long afterwards, the then-interim secretary of the Iranian Ski Federation claimed that Shemshaki had “lost” his travel documents in Sweden and in fact very much wanted to return to Iran. He and his wife returned within the month.
Then in early March 2017, the Revolutionary Guards-affiliated Tasnim News Agency had quoted Seyed Abdi Eftekhari, the then-President of the Ski Federation, describing Alireza Moghdid as a “little-known” skier who had applied for asylum in Finland at the end of a skiing competition. Later that same month, Mashregh News reported the "voluntary return" of Alireza Moghdid to Iran. He deleted the pictures he had posted on his personal Instagram account after being granted asylum in Finland, and resettled in Iran.
Fars News Agency praised the Iranian embassy's efforts to bring both athletes back. But after it was announced that both would be members of the national skiing team, the security services-affiliated outlet Young Reporters Club criticized the decision. Without naming Yasin Shemshaki and Alireza Moghdid, it said the Ski Federation had “not paid much attention” to the selection process and even suggested the current Federation president be deposed at the next election.
The Ministry of Sports' fear of what the Iranian parliament has called an "enemy conspiracy to recruit Iranian athletes" – which by all accounts, appears in fact to be a voluntary and fully-informed decision by those who left – has now somehow led to current Iranian national team members being pushed into offering up their property as collateral if they do not return home.
Notably the Ministry of Sports and Youth has also ordered Morteza Mohsenpour, the Ski Federation's public relations manager, to accompany members of Iran's national cross-country skiing team to Germany, along with two security guards. Their job will be to take care of the athletes – and to prevent them from seeking refuge in Europe.