In an interview with domestic media, Amir Sedighi, President of the Wushu Federation of Iran, praised the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic for his stance on sports. Through his public speeches in particular, Sedighi claimed, Ali Khamenei had shown his “complete mastery” of the field.
In recent years, when discussing sports, Khamenei has focused his attention on two key issues: the ban on Iranians competing with Israeli athletes, and the obligation on female athletes to observe Islamic hijab. What does this top sportsman mean by “mastery”, then, and what has the impact of it been?
The first recorded time Ali Khamenei took a public stand on sports, he had not yet been awarded the honorary prefix “Ayatollah”. At the time of the relevant TV interview in 1983, he was still known by the lesser title of hojatoleslam, and referred in grandiose terms to a historic 1968 football game played between the Iranian and Israeli national football teams. The Pahlavi-era match had taken place at Tehran’s Amjadieh Stadium, now called the Shahir Shiroudi Sport Complex.
"I was a young student in those days,” Khamenei recalled. “The general mood in Tehran was against the Israeli team. After the game all the people of Tehran showed their joy for this victory. The taxi driver said ‘Did you see how we scored?’ This showed that the Iranian people were unhappy about the Shah’s cooperation with Israel.”
More than a decade later in 1997, people from all over Iran took to the streets again after the national team drew 2-2 with Australia, to celebrate Team Melli having qualified for the World Cup. This happiness, like the joy shared after Iran's recent victory in the Asian Cup, had had nothing to do with politics. But the leader of the Islamic Republic tried to present it as such anyway, and other wins besides.
In 1998, the Iranian national team returned from the World Cup in France to attend a meeting with Khamenei. Recalling the Iran-US game played on June 21, in which Iran won 2-1, Khamenei told a reporter for the IRIB: “I turned on the TV and suddenly I came across his [footballer Hamid Reza Estili’s) goal; I could not sleep any longer and sat down to watch the game."
The person who had asked Ali Khamenei about the Iran-US match was Adel Ferdowsipour, one of the guests at the meeting. A year later he started up the popular weekly football program Navad, or “90”, on Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.
With some irony, it was on Khamenei’s instruction that Navad was taken off air 20 years later. Ex-IRIB chief Mohammad Sarafraz claimed in 2019 that he had defied an order by Khamenei to shut down the program in 2016, following public remarks by the Supreme Leader about rows between sports directors being aired by “a program” being “ineffectual for the people”. Then in 2019, the director of IRIB’s Channel Three, Ali Foroughi, took it off air. Foroughi is a relative of Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, whose daughter is married to Khamenei’s son Mojtaba.
So far, then, the Supreme Leader had proved himself effective in arbitrarily politicizing football matches and getting well-loved TV programs cancelled. But he also excels in tying the hands of sportsmen and women of all stripes competing at international tournaments. Iranian athletes have not been allowed to compete against Israeli athletes since 1983, in no small part due to the words of the Supreme Leader.
Ali Khamenei last met with Iran’s latest crop of Olympic and Paralympic athletes on September 18, 2021. During the discussion, he explicitly urged Iranian sports officials and athletes not to be “passive” on the matter of Israel, and called on the Ministry of Sports and Youth as well as the Iranian Olympic Committee to publicly praise the Algerian judoka Fethi Nourine for refusing to fight an Israeli at Tokyo 2020. This “expert” rhetoric down the years has taken Iran to such a point that it faces immediate risk of being suspended by the International Olympic Committee: a fate that has already befallen the Judo Federation.
Khamenei has also recently called Iranian male and female athletes who sought refuge in third countries "traitors", "self-serving" and "unhealthy". More than 20 top athletes with world and Olympic titles are known to have fled Iran in the past five years alone. Among them are taekwondo practitioner Kimia Alizadeh and top futsal player Shiva Amini, both of whom cited mandatory hijab as being among their reasons for emigrating.
In his most recent meeting with athletes, Khamenei had this to say on the subject of women: "The veiling of Iranian women athletes has paved the way for female athletes in [other] Islamic countries. Currently, women athletes from more than 10 Islamic countries are wearing sporting hijab." The latter may be true, but in most other countries female athletes do not face flogging or imprisonment if they choose otherwise.
Khamenei has also praised misogyny among sportsmen, telling Iranian Olympian and Paralympian athletes in March 2013: "Our young son does not shake hands with the woman who wants to throw the medal around his neck. This is very valuable. We do not do this just out of religious bigotry, or to promote our beliefs. This [not shaking hands with a women] is a sign of endurance and the strong metal that exists in the blood of the Iranian people. These are the things that give value to a nation. Appreciate and promote these things.” He was referring here to an awkward episode at the London 2012 games, when discus thrower and silver medalist Mehrdad Karam Zadeh refused to shake hands with Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge and the wife of Britain’s Prince William.
In addition to creating a closed space for athletes, the Supreme Leader has closed the doors of Iranian stadiums to women. A fatwa to this effect was issued in 1987 by Iran’s ailing first Supreme Leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, and was upheld by Ali Khamenei in 2003 when the Ahmadinejad administration sought to overturn it. That same year, the Jomhuri Eslami (Islamic Republic) newspaper published a written response by Khamenei to a question by a police chief, who had asked if women could enter stadiums for volleyball matches: “This is prohibited and illegal, and disobeying it is deemed a violation."
In a separate ruling, Khamenei banned women from attending wrestling matches due to “the fear of committing sin and corruption”. On November 4 of this year, Hossein Jalali, a member of the Iranian parliament’s Cultural Committee, told MPs that Ali Khamenei also opposed a fresh plan to let women onto the stands for football games, on the basis of “Islamic law”.
Ali Khamenei’s “mastery” in Iranian sports appears to be limited to the masterful manner in which he has impoverished the field over 30 years. Not just in terms of scope, talent and reputation, but in terms of hard cash: more than 70 percent of revenues from ticket sales at Iran Pro League matches go to the Execution of Imam’s Directive, a massive holdings company under the control of the very same “master”.