Navid Afkari’s unjust death reinforces case for human rights accountability in sport | Wrestling

The sporting world learned at the weekend of the grave news that the Iranian wrestling champion, Navid Afkari, had been hanged by the Iranian regime for a crime to which he claimed he was tortured to falsely confess.

The visibility and social importance of sport around the world means that these types of barbarous acts, whilst occurring every day to other innocent people, become magnified. This is an important power of sport.

But while the world came to know more about Iranian treatment of its own people for peaceful protest which may lead to further international pressure, the question that Afkari might have wanted asked was: where was sport when he needed it?

Athletes came to his aid, many at great risk to themselves, such are the shared values of solidarity and brother and sisterhood that exists between us around the world. These values carry great hope for a better world.

However, once again, institutional sport was largely silent.

Emblematic of the traits of global governing bodies when athletes or fans are being harmed, is the statement by United World Wrestling, the governing body of Afkari’s sport, which was issued after his death.

Where were the statements last week with threats of sanctions by the organisation’s president, Nenad Lalovic, asserting Afkari’s human rights and demanding the cessation of his execution?

World Judo expelled Iran for interference in competition in 2019. Here, an athlete faced a horrific and unjust death. And, yet?

Lalovic and Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, trod a well-worn path of soft diplomacy and ‘behind-closed-doors’ conversations, appealing for mercy.

My question to athletes of the world is this: is it not time for these doors to be opened and for objective and transparent standards to be rigorously applied both to the transgressing member nation, and the sport itself?

Closed doors carry risk of the primacy, or preservation of political and commercial relationships and too often leave those in harm’s way with no recourse but public campaigns by human rights and athlete organisations to urge governing bodies to act.

If the gymnastics and Olympic world stood ready, over five hundred US gymnasts would likely have avoided tragic sexual and physical abuse in a case that a US congressional report characterised as “a cover-up in spirit”.

If Fifa upheld their own statutes regarding gender equality in 2019, Iranian fan Sahar Khodayari’s self-immolation may have been avoided.

If sport was bound to justice, those responsible for the torture of more than 150 Bahraini athletes for their peaceful protest in 2011, including Olympians, would have been stripped of positions of authority. Quite the opposite is true.

And if Formula One was obligated to uphold the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, perhaps Najah Yusuf may have avoided torture for criticising the staging of the Bahraini Grand Prix in 2017.

The IOC issued a post-death statement on Afkari which makes no mention of the ramifications on Iran’s membership of the Olympic movement for allegedly torturing and then killing an athlete. Rather, it notes the “sovereignty” of Iran.

The Athletes Commission will be absolutely genuine in their care and compassion. They may even hold strong beliefs on the validity of working within the current system and its ability to effectively come to their aid, despite the powerful arguments and traumatic experiences of the athletes and fans they represent.

But, will the system come to their aid? Is sport systemically capable of acting effectively when an athlete or a fan, particularly without the privilege and power of public profile, is at risk and when political dimensions are involved, as is always the case?

The handling of Afkari’s case bears all the hallmarks of those that came before. I write this for Afkari’s family and his two brothers, who are still incarcerated, because I have seen sport’s response in these moments, too often. Young footballer Hakeem al-Araibi, who was saved from a similar fate, was spared because we refused to allow Fifa to rely on claims of soft diplomacy.

The saddest part of Afkari’s death is that he, like Al-Araibi and Khodayari, were believers in the sporting dream. All three either spoke out for their rights, or peacefully protested, because they believed in the responsibility of sport to make social change, perhaps even in the principles of Olympism, in which Afkari was likely well versed.

This dream that sport has sold the world says we stand for something, for each other, for humanity and a better world. But a better world begins with individual rights, in fighting for justice every time one person’s rights are breached, in standing for the rights of all through the rights of each one of us.

Sport has immense power and leverage because it is the love of the people but it is soulless if unwilling to use this social power to stand for human rights. Athletes should acknowledge that the system of response and redress for the abuse of human rights in sport does not work effectively, sometimes not at all.

It is time for the athletes to ensure that every international sport implements a human rights policy; that every member of the global sporting community upholds these provisions as a requirement of membership; that sport acts swiftly, forcefully, collectively and transparently when its people are at risk; and that those who refuse to are expelled.

Athletes who still believe the most effective way is private, political solutions that are held in high regard by sporting politicians, must ask themselves if their sport made the strongest commitment to human rights and held its members accountable to these standards, what effect might this have on a world where too many fall to Afkari’s fate?

Promoting the universality and importance of human rights for people everywhere through the power of global sport is the only good that can come from such horror. And only athletes can make it so.

  • Craig Foster is a former international footballer and Australian Multicultural Council Adjunct Professor, Sport & Social Responsibility, at Torrens University


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