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Athletes Turned Criminals: A Calendar Of Repression Against Iranian Sports

February 21, 2023
Payam Younesipour
6 min read
Athletes Turned Criminals: A Calendar Of Repression Against Iranian Sports

Razieh Janbaz, the first Iranian woman to play with a foreign handball team, has announced that she has been banned from leaving the country, and shared a picture of herself without the mandatory hijab.

"It is strange that a protester means a criminal," the 26-year-old former member of the national handball team wrote on her official Instagram page on February 15, adding that that no one can take away her freedom.

Janbaz’s announcement came after Mahmoud Khosravivafa, the current head of the Iranian National Olympic Committee, made false statements about the situation of Iranian athletes.

During a press conference, Khosravivafa claimed that imprisoned and convicted athletes were granted amnesty, and that athletes are not required to provide financial guarantees before travelling abroad to participate in international sports competitions.  

The Islamic Republic’s treatment of Iranian athletes has increasingly come under the radar of world sports bodies after Iranian officials threatened, arrested and handed heavy prison terms to those who have voiced support to the ongoing nationwide protests.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has requested a written report from the Islamic Republic on the "freedom of Iranian athletes to express their opinions."

Football’s world body has also paid attention to the situation in Iran and invited Iranian football legend Ali Daei to attend an annual FIFA ceremony in Paris later this month.

However, Daei and his family have been banned from leaving the country by the order of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) Intelligence Organization.

The authorities closed Daei’s jewelry store and restaurant in Tehran after he joined a three-day nationwide strike in December.

This report is an overview of recent events related to the restrictions on Iranian athletes and their freedom of expression since October 21, 2022, when a meeting of the world's national Olympic committees ended.


October 30: The Iranian Foreign Ministry did not allowed the national men's and women's skating teams to participate in an international tournament in Argentina over concerns that the athletes may compete without hijab or express support for the wave of protests in Iran.

November 2: Reza Alfati, a bodybuilder was arrested by the Intelligence Department of the western city of Kermanshah after being hit by a live bullet.

November 6: Aileen Rauf, a bodybuilding and fitness coach, announced that she was threatened by the security forces in Turkey because of her participation in protests.

November 7: Deputy Sports Ministers Vahid Yaminpour and Sina Kalhor threatened the men’s national beach football team after the players refused to sing the anthem of the Islamic Republic.

November 7: The national football federation announced it would take disciplinary action against the players of the national beach football team.

November 8: The family of football goalkeeper Mohammed Ghaemifar announced he had died, two weeks after being hit by dozens of pellets shot by security forces.

November 8: Niloufar Mordani participated in an international skating competition in Turkey without a hijab. She was forced to apologize for allegedly forgetting to put on her headscarf.

November 13: Two climbers, Dariush Hossein Shahrevi and Reihaneh Arghwani, were arrested by the security institutions of the Islamic Republic.

November 14: The family of wushu champion Fatemeh Azad confirmed she had been arrested three weeks earlier when security forces stormed her house. Her whereabouts are unknown.

November 15: Former football player Ali Karimi said that the national football federation had concealed his FIFA invitation to attend the World Cup opening ceremony due to his support for protests.

November 16: Football player Soroush Rafiei was severely beaten after helping a girl to escape from security forces who were pursuing her.

November 22: An international association of sports journalists and photographers confirmed that four sports journalists had been arrested in Iran since the start of the widespread protests in September.

November 24: Football player Varia Ghafouri was arrested by intelligence agents of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

November 24: People close to Amir Nasr-Azadani, a former player of the Tractor football club, confirmed that he was arrested by security forces.

November 27: Documents hacked from the IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency revealed that Mehdi Taj, the head of the national football federation, was appointed to his position with the support of the IRGC.

November 28: CNN reported that some members of the national football team were threatened by security agencies after their World Cup match against England. Carlos Queiroz, the team's coach, allegedly met separately with IRGC security agents prior to the team's match against Wales.

December 1: All the players of the national beach football team who made symbolic gestures in support of Iranian women at an international competition were expelled from the team.

December 2: Government forces destroyed the family house of climber Elnaz Rakabi and her brother.

December 4: The national football federation and the Premier League Organization officially announced that the matches will be held without spectators following an order by security institutions.

December 5: Fars News Agency reported that Ali Daei's restaurant and shop in Tehran were sealed by the authorities after he joined a three-day nationwide strike.

December 7: Mashreq News, which is close to the government, considered the sealing of Ali Daei's called for his arrest.

December 7: Media confirmed that five mountain climbing and cycling coaches and athletes - Eshraq Najafabadi, Amir Arslan Mahdavi, Marjan Jagjoo, Dana Shibani and Hessam Mousavi – were arrested by security forces.

December 11: Mohammed Akhundi, an adviser to the Minister of Sports and Youth and a candidate to head the national football federation, demanded the execution of protesters.

December 17: Sports photographer and kayak champion Aria Jafari was sentenced to seven years in prison and 74 lashes by a Revolutionary Court.

December 19: Jürgen Lokadia, the Dutch striker of Persepolis football club, unilaterally terminated his contract and left Iran. He said there was not enough security in Iran.

December 22: The IRGC-affiliated Javan newspaper called for the closure of the Premier League and League One due to the players' participation in nationwide protests and their refusal to celebrate after scoring goals.

December 26: The family of MMA champion Masoom Razavi announced his arrest by IRGC intelligence forces.

December 28: An airplane flying from Tehran to Dubai was rerouted and Ali Daei's wife and daughter ordered off.

January 7: Karate champion Mohammad Mehdi Karami was executed after being sentenced to death for his alleged role in the killing of a member of the paramilitary Basij force.

January 10: Karate athlete Hamideh Abbasali announced that another karate champion, Saleh Mirhashmi, could be executed.

January 16: Minister of Interior Ahmad Vahidi announced that any collusion between athletes and protesters was a crime and that those suspected will be prosecuted.

January 24: Football player Voria Ghafouri was sacked from his team after criticizing the Islamic Republic’s bloody response to the protests.

January 25: Kosar Khoshnodikia, a member of the women's national archery team, said she had lost sight in one eye due to direct fire by government forces.

January 28: Atefeh Ahmadi, a member of the women's national skiing team, fled to Germany due to what she called the increasing dangers that athletes are facing in Iran.

February 2: Rasoul Khadim, a former world and Olympic wrestling champion, was officially banned from leaving Iran after expressing support for the protests.

February 13: Ice climbing champion Zeinab Mousavi announced she had been threatened many times by the Islamic Republic after declaring asylum in Switzerland.

February 15: Razieh Janbaz, a former member of the women's national handball team, was banned from leaving the country because she protested the mandatory hijab.


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