The International Olympic Committee has a history of banning countries from competing at the Olympic Games.
From 1964 to 1988, South Africa was banned from competing due to its racist apartheid policies. In 2000, Afghanistan was banned for its treatment of women. Various countries were banned in the first half of the 20th Century for their involvement in the two World Wars.
It’s time to add Iran to that list.
Truth is, it’s been time for a while.
LGBTQ rights are virtually non-existent there, as anti-discrimination policies are supplanted by an outright encouragement to discriminate. Gay people are executed in Iran simply for being gay, and the country’s foreign minister has cited “moral principles” in defending the murders.
“The punishment [for being gay] in Iran many times is being thrown off a building, or barbaric ways in which you kill someone by hanging them or shooting them,” former Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell tells me in the latest episode of the Five Rings To Rule Them All podcast. “It’s really systemic human-rights violations.”
According to intelligence, Iran’s regime had executed between 4,000 and 6,000 gay people as of 2008, over a decade ago.
Grenell, a longtime Republican and personal friend of mine, talks on the podcast about seeing intelligence that demonstrates a system of tapping phones and Internet to identify people who may be organizing to fight for human rights.
When you Google “human rights Iran,” it should come back with a one-word answer: “None.”
Yet it’s the murder of national-champion wrestler Navid Afkari that has enflamed the latest outrage against the Iranian regime and spurred people across sports to speak up.
Afkari, a national champion wrestler in Iran, was murdered by the government on Sept. 12 because he dared say a negative word about the Iranian regime (speaking ill of the government is, in fact, illegal there). He had also been accused of killing someone during a protest, but his admission to the crime, as well as the accounts of alleged eye witnesses, were coerced and ultimately recanted.
People from around the world — President Donald Trump, major sports figures in Iran, United World Wrestling, UFC president Dana White, Grenell, even the IOC — pushed publicly and behind the scenes to prevent the murder. Iran was defiant and killed him anyway.
Afkari’s murder has now become a flashpoint for a push to exclude Iran from the upcoming Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. The growing chorus has so far included people across sports, including the head of the World Players Association of soccer, and the German Athlete Association, who said, “the inaction of the IOC is unacceptable.”
Add me to the list.
So far the IOC’s response has been insultingly tepid.
“The execution of wrestler Navid Afkari in Iran is very sad news,” the IOC response read in part. “Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Navid Afkari.”
That cannot stand as the IOC’s final response. It should ban Iran from the Olympic Games next summer.
I am sensitive to some of the arguments against banning a country from the Olympics. Does this hurt the regime or the innocent athletes who’ve worked all their lives to get here? Greg Louganis has talked about the heartbreak to the athletes of the United States boycotting the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.
While this is not a boycott, I do understand the needs of the athletes. Would punishing an athlete like Afkari really be a just remedy for Afkari’s murder?
The IOC has a work-around, which it recently utilized with Russian athletes, allowing them to compete under the Olympic flag while banning Russian flags, the national anthem and other displays. That speaks to the legitimacy of the athletes’ hard work and the illegitimacy of the human-rights violations of their government.
There’s also the idea of the power of engagement, something I’m a big proponent of. Certainly some are lost causes on issues of human rights, and the Iranian regime very well may be (even though I hold out hope). Engaging with people can build bridges; Isolation is a last resort when trying to build understanding and advance human rights.
Yet there also have to be times when the crime demands a punishment.
“For engagement to work, there also needs to be moments where you say, ‘This has crossed the line so much that you don’t get to participate in the international community,’” Grenell says. “So I would like to see, because of the systemic human rights abuses by the Iranian regime, I would like to see the Olympics say, ‘You are no longer welcome in international competition.’”
No doubt there are many other egregious human-rights abusers around the world. No nation is perfect.
Yet that doesn’t mean the public embrace of egregious human-rights violations by the Iranian regime should go ignored. The murder of Afkari is the flashpoint that has put this issue over the edge — an attack on the sports world in the face of athletes, governing bodies and the IOC itself.
It’s time to ban Iran from the Olympic Games.