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Source: DW

Apr 27, 2023

Iran protests: 'Athletes should be on the right side'

For seven months, large groups of people in Iran have been demonstrating for their freedom. The role of sports in this struggle is a sensitive subject.

BY Farid Ashrafian

Numerous Iranian athletes have joined in withprotests against the country's regime, risking life and limb. But the question is being asked: How should sport position itself when it comes to the struggle for freedom in Iran?


At a themed event at the German Football Museum in Dortmund organized by the German Football Association in cooperation with Amnesty International, Ali Karimi, a central figure of opposition to Iran's current leadership, took a clear stand with a video message. 

"Athletes should always be on the right side of history," the former Bayern Munich footballer claimed. "They must play their unique social role accordingly and be the voice of their people."

The 44-year old now lives in exile in the United States. According to Karimi, the Iranian regime confiscated his assets and death threats are a regular occurrence. The price paid for his solidarity with the fight for freedom is immensely high, Karimi says, but justifiable. After all, the success of the resistance is at stake.

Prevented from leaving the country

The event in Dortmund also highlighted the efforts of former Iranian international football and futsal player Niloufar Ardalan as she battles against the oppression of women in Iran. Excerpts from the film "Time to Breathe," which tells of Ardalan's life, were shown. Her biography is emblematic of Iranian women's struggle for freedom.

Now 38-years old, Ardalan was given the chance to compete at the Asian Championship in September 2015 as captain of the Iranian futsal team. However, her husband insisted that she attend their youngest son's school enrolment, preventing her from leaving the country. 

According to the regulations in force in the Islamic Republic, married women need the express permission of their spouse to leave the country. Interestingly, Ardalan's husband is Mehdi Toutounchi, a well-known Iranian TV sports presenter and, by his own admission, a supporter of women's football.

Ardalan now runs a football program for girls in Iran. "In our society, women's lives face blatant barriers," said the former player, who joined via video. "I’m happy that I can be a role model of resistance for the mothers and women of my country."

Refusing to deliberately lose

The former Iranian judoka Vahid Sarlak also reported on his traumatizing experiences at the event. According to Sarlak, he had to bury his dream of winning a medal at the 2005 World Championships. At the behest of the current regime, he had to lose on purpose given that he would have otherwise have fought against an Israeli judoka in the next round which is incompatible with the country’s laws.

Four years later, Sarlak ignored directives he was given as he competed against an Israeli in the tournament and won the fight with drastic consequences for his life: Sarlak could no longer return to his homeland. 

Former Iranian judoka Vahid Sarlak (r.) in conversation with moderator Marina Schweizer

Since then, the now 42-year old has been living in Germany. "I haven't seen my family in Iran for 15 years," Sarlak says. "They have a lot of problems because of me. My sister and brother are not allowed to work. They have had to live as if they were in a prison because of my story." 

In 2021, Sarlak was called to testify at the International Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). His testimony was instrumental in CAS confirming the multi-year ban currently still in place against the Iranian judo federation.

Ban the entire federation or sanction officials?

But does the exclusion of national sports federations support the freedom movement in Iran? Opinions in the Iranian sports community are divided. 

While Vahid Sarlak told DW he supported the suspensions, ex-footballer Ali Karimi called for a different approach: "The IOC and the international sports federations must imperatively sanction any activity by the Islamic Republic's sports officials. I don't know of any sports federation in Iran that is freely organized." Sports officials in Iran are largely members of the Revolutionary Guard and are considered the extended arm of the regime.

Similar to Karimi, football agent Reza Fazeli is critical of the suspensions. "When federations are banned, athletes are the ones who suffer. They are not allowed to live out their dream," Fazeli said. "Sanctions must be imposed on officials because they are mercenaries of the regime." 

When asked about the prospects for success of the ongoing protests in Iran, Fazeli described it as "a movement of love, a movement of civilization against barbarism. And in the end, love wins."

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