Liam Morgan

Let me start by adding to the condemnation of Iran’s execution of wrestler Navid Afkari last week.

Afkari’s death, which came after he was allegedly tortured into confessing to the murder of a security officer during anti-Government protests in 2018, has understandably triggered global denunciation of the Iranian regime.

The tragic hanging of the 27-year-old has also led to widespread calls for Iran to face sporting sanctions, chief among them a ban from next year’s postponed Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) - which has continually refused to suspend or ban Iran, despite having ample opportunity to do so - has been urged to act by athletes, officials and even Iranians alike, many of whom have quite frankly had enough of the country’s flagrant abuses of human rights.

In some ways, the IOC is stuck between a rock and a hard place. I am sure there are those within the organisation who would support sanctions of some kind against Iran - described as the "stone in our shoe" by the head of an International Federation not so long ago - but figuring out how they could be implemented is easier said than done.

Officials such as World Players Association executive director Brendan Schwab also argue the ramifications of deciding against punishing Iran would be worse for sport.

"The alternative is an untenable question - what does it mean if sport allows Navid’s execution to pass without any consequence?" Schwab said today.

There are several reasons why imposing sanctions on Iran is far from straightforward. For a start, the only party the IOC can punish under the Olympic Charter is the National Olympic Committee of the Islamic Republic of Iran (NOCIRI).

The Charter, to put it bluntly, does not explicitly give the IOC the power to ban a country because its Government executed an athlete, however unjust and heinous an act that may be.

Clearly the NOCIRI, which we are led to believe tried to intervene in the case, was not culpable for his death. The reason Afkari is not still alive today is the sole responsibility of an oppressive Government and its targeting of those who disagree with its regime.

It is difficult to see any scope for a ban in the Charter, which, as is the case with other similar documents, is open to interpretation. Some believe, however, that the NOCIRI is potentially liable for failing to protect Afkari, although it seems a stretch to suggest the organisation could have done anything to prevent the execution going ahead.

There are provisions which, if applied to this scenario, may provide room for the IOC to act. Under the Charter, National Olympic Committees, among other regulations, have a responsibility "to ensure the observance of the Olympic Charter in the countries" and "to take action against any form of discrimination and violence in sport".

Some might argue it would be harsh to blame the NOCIRI - and by consequence the country’s Olympic athletes - for the actions of the Iranian Government, which it has no control over, but it has been done before. The International Judo Federation (IJF) banned Iran after the Government ordered judoka Saeid Mollaiei to withdraw to avoid facing an opponent from Israel as part of its ongoing refusal to accept the Jewish state.

The case is currently in the hands of the Court of Arbitration for Sport after Iran appealed the IJF decision and hearings are taking place by videoconference this week. It will be interesting to see whether the verdict creates a precedent.

Perhaps the IOC walking through the door opened by the IJF could be the catalyst for change. After all, those who know the nation better than I tell me how important sport is to the country and its people. An Olympic ban - even if the legal reasoning is opaque and tenuous - would surely send a message that human rights violations will not be tolerated.

Afkari’s death falls into this category not because he was the subject of capital punishment, but as a result of Iran’s supposed refusal to grant him a fair trial.

IOC President Thomas Bach has refused to suspend Iran ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach has refused to suspend Iran ©Getty Images

Suspending an NOC for the decisions of the country’s Government is not alien to the IOC, which placed South Africa in Olympic exile for more than two decades for its racist Apartheid policy.

The difference in this case is the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee was complicit in Apartheid through its discriminatory statutes and practices, although others might argue the organisation was only taking orders from the Government, and sport was not the only arena from which the nation was almost universally banished.

The IOC, for what it is worth, did embark on its usual backchannel diplomacy, holding behind-the-scenes talks with Iranian authorities in an attempt to persuade the Government not to go ahead with the execution.

Athlete and human rights groups feel, however, the IOC could and should have put more pressure on Iran in the days before Afkari was killed. There is the belief that public threats of sanctions from the IOC, including a warning of throwing the nation out of Tokyo 2020, if the country proceeded with the execution may have aided Afkari’s cause.

Whether or not such efforts would have had an impact will, sadly, never be known. It is also possible Iran, which has often exhibited a blatant disregard for international law and agreements, would have ignored the IOC anyway.

Where the IOC does deserve criticism is for its failure to ban Iran in the past, as well as a lack of condemnation of Iran in a weak statement sent in the wake of Afkari’s execution.

The IOC has been given plenty of opportunities to deservedly suspend the NOCIRI and has ignored the flagrant charter breaches every time.

Iran barring women from entering sports venues and its refusal to allow its athletes to compete against Israelis warranted strong action. Instead, the IOC turned a blind eye and did nothing.

The IOC and its President Thomas Bach have frequently cited letters from Iran promising to change as the reason why it did not sanction the NOCIRI, yet these have so far proven to be little more than empty rhetoric.

Contrary to quotes from IOC vice-president John Coates earlier this week, the IOC has never banned Iran - a fact the IOC has acknowledged in a response to Coates’ interview.

"We understand Mr. Coates was referring to Iranian athletes who had been suspended by International Federations," an IOC spokesperson said.

"The NOC of Iran has not been suspended by the IOC in the past.”

Iran should already have been banned, and it is perhaps for this reason why the criticism of the IOC for its failure to act has been so vociferous.

The IOC has been reluctant to suspend Iran even when it had the grounds to do so. Don't expect Afkari's death, however shocking, to change that.