Protecting players: International sporting bodies are responsible for protecting athletes' rights in Iran

Protecting players: International sporting bodies are responsible for protecting athletes' rights in Iran

International sporting bodies such as FIFA, UEFA, International Olympic Committee and Commonwealth Games Federation exist to protect the rights of players and ensure that the core principles of fair play are maintained. Thus, they have the power to promote positive change. This should include pushing participating nations to respect human rights.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights apply to both sports governing bodies and business enterprises, putting players’ rights are at the center of both labour and business standards. In addition, the World Players Association developed the Universal Declaration of Players Rights, specifying that every player:

● Is entitled to equality of opportunity, without discrimination, harassment or violence.

● Has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

● Is entitled to have his or her name, image and performance protected.

● Has a right to a private life, as well as confidentiality for any personal data collected and retained.

● Must be able to access an effective remedy when his or her human rights are not respected and upheld. This is crucial considering the short term and precarious nature of an athlete’s life.

● Has the right to share equitably in the economic activity and wealth of his or her sport, as well as fair and just pay and working conditions.

Politicisation of sports

Governments have increasingly attempted to manipulate players for their own political agendas, while at the same time prohibiting them from speaking out about their own views. This is especially seen in regions such as the Middle East and North Africa, where sports are used as a tool by governments to pursue their domestic agendas.

A case in point is Iran. The large number of Iranian athletes who seek asylum outside is further evidence of the climate of fear that prevails in the country. On 11 January, 2020, Iran’s only female bronze medalist, 21-year-old taekwondo champion Kimia Alizadeh, joined their ranks. After her defection to Germany, Alizadeh took to social media to explain that she no longer wanted to be part of the regime’s “hypocrisy, lies and injustice.” She added that the Islamic Republic had used her success as a propaganda tool. Yet even as officials boasted about her success internationally, they humiliated her behind the scenes, stating that “it is not virtuous for a woman to stretch her legs.”

I wore whatever they told me and repeated whatever they ordered. Every sentence they ordered I repeated. None of us matter for them; we are just tools.

Kimia Alizadeh, an Iranian champion 

Alizadeh, who says she is “one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran,”  responded on Instagram that, “I wore whatever they told me and repeated whatever they ordered. Every sentence they ordered I repeated. None of us matter for them; we are just tools.” Upon learning about her escape, Iranian politician Abdulkarim Hosseinzadeh, blamed officials and referred to Alizadeh as “human capital.”

Like many other athletes, Alizadeh was willing to put her life on the line and sacrifice everything to escape. However, many other players are not lucky enough to escape the shackles of the regime. Instead, they must remain in the country, living under threat along with their families.  

Sports should not be stained by blood

Just months after the execution of world champion wrestler Navid Afkari, Iranian authorities brutally executed a second player, 30-year-old Mehdi Ali Husseini. Husseini was executed in a prison in Southwestern Khuzestan province in the city of Dezful. Both were charged with murder, but said they were forced into making false confessions. Despite international pleas and campaigns launched by professional wrestlers such as champion Hamid Sourian, the Islamic Republic of Iran proceeded with the executions. International sporting bodies should condemn the death penalty and hold the Iranian regime accountable.

Gender discrimination is another festering issue in Iran. Sahar Khodayari, known as the “Blue Girl” due to the colour of her favorite team, set herself on fire after being charged for attempting to enter a football match in Tehran. A ban on female attendance at football matches was imposed in 1981, although it was temporarily lifted to allow women to watch when the World Cup streamed in a stadium in the city.

In the wake of the tragic incident, the Twitter hashtag #BanIRSportsFederations circulated widely as users called on international sporting bodies to set and enforce human rights regulations and prevent state interference. The captain of the Iranian football team, Masoud Shojaei, joined the outcry on social media by condemning the ban on women as “rooted in outdated and cringeworthy thoughts that will not be understood by future generations.” Gender discrimination has no place in sports and must be condemned.

Gender discrimination has no place in sports and must be condemned.

Iran's history of athlete executions

Iran has a long history of executing athletes for their political opinions. Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, the regime has been stained with the blood of its national champions.

In 1988, the captain of Iran’s women's volleyball team, Foruzan Abdi, was executed in the country’s most infamous prison, Evin. She was incarcerated for supporting the political opposition group Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK). Despite her five-year sentence, Abdi was not released at the end; instead, she was hung. Also put to death for support of MEK were footballer Habib Khabiri (1983) and wrestler Hooshang Montazeralzohoor (who was executed by firing squad with 29 others). Montazeralzohoor represented Iran in the 1976 Montreal Olympics and the 1977 Universiade in Bulgaria.

Other executions of athletes include Olympic footballer Mahshid Razaghi, who was imprisoned for selling anti-government newspapers. Despite his 12-month sentence, he remained in prison for seven years and executed in 1988.

Iran is a leading human rights violator, with a total of 236 Iranians executed and a further 95 sentenced to death in 2020 alone. Thousands of Iranians across the globe have called for international sporting bodies to ban Iran from participating in world sporting events. ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies joins them. 

International sporting bodies should:

● Ensure Iran’s compliance with the Universal Declaration of Players Rights.

● Recognise that athletes/players are civilians and, like any employee, should be treated with due respect, including contractual agreements that ensure fair pay and safe working conditions.

● Ensure that sanctioned sporting events are free of politicisation, corruption and bribery.

● Penalize governments that violate players' rights in the pursuit of their national foreign policy agendas.

● Implement policies that protect players’ right to equal opportunities, without discrimination, harassment or violence.

● Ensure that players’ rights are not limited based on race, gender, age, language, sexual orientation, disability, religion or political opinions.

●  Push governments to grant players the right to organise through representative associations.

●  Inform member countries that sports should not be used as a platform to express their political agendas. For this reason, international sporting bodies must ban any country that violates players’ rights. 

●  Promote the mental and physical health of players. 



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