Iran at the Olympics

On July 23, Iran’s delegation joined 204 nations to inaugurate the Olympic Games in Tokyo. The Iranian flagbearers, male basketball player Samad Nikkhah Bahrami and female shooter Hanieh Rostamian, led the team in the opening ceremony; the women wore long, light-blue garments and headscarves, while the men sported navy suits. The group of 66 Iranian athletes, competing in 16 events, was Iran’s largest Olympic delegation since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Four Iranian defectors separately competed with the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) 29-member Refugee Olympic Team; Iranian athletes were second largest group after refugees from South Sudan. 

Iran at opening ceremony
Iranian flagbearers

As of August 7, Iran had secured seven medals:

  • a gold in shooting
  • a gold in karate
  • a gold and a bronze in Greco-Roman wrestling
  • a silver and a bronze in freestyle wrestling
  • silver in weightlifting

    At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, the Iranian delegation finished 25th overall with eight medals, including three gold. Since Iran sent its first athletes in 1948, Iran has won medals mainly in weightlifting, martial arts, and wrestling events. These sports were broadly viewed as complimentary to the Persian tradition of varzesh-e-bastani, a pre-Islamic fusion of strength training, sparring, and meditation embraced by both the monarchy and the Islamic Republic. Although it supported varzesh-e-bastani, the Islamic Republic initially showed limited interest in promoting athletics, especially during the eight-year war with Iraq. The young regime considered sports, such as soccer, to be antithetical to its anti-imperialist mission. 

In 1980, Iran was among 65 nations that boycotted the Moscow games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1984, Iran boycotted the Los Angeles games “to expose the criminal acts of the world-devouring U.S. government,” said Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. But it participated in all the Olympics since 1988. At the Toyko Olympics, as the Iranian government has once more presented its delegation to the world stage, Iranian athletes found themselves brushing up against geopolitical rifts and domestic debates.  


First Gold Medal

On July 24, Javad Foroughi earned Iran’s first gold medal in the 2021 games after he won the 10-meter air pistol competition for men; he set an Olympic record with 244.8 points. At 41 years old, he was also the oldest Iranian winner of an Olympic medal. Foroughi, a nurse in the Revolutionary Guards, only began his sporting career in 2017. An Iranian-state newspaper described Foroughi as “a Guards nurse who is at the same time a defender of health and of the shrine.” The term “defender of the shrine” references those who work on behalf of the Iranian government in Syria and Iraq. General Hossein Salami, the IRGC’s commander-in-chief, acknowledged Foroughi as an “exuberant Guard of the Islamic revolution.” President-elect Ebrahim Raisi spoke with Foroughi by phone minutes after scoring his final shot.

The IOC’s Twitter account, which has six million followers, congratulated Foroughi on his “golden debut.” But a human-rights group criticized the IOC tweet and the shooter’s affiliation with the U.S.-sanctioned Revolutionary Guards. United for Navid, a human-rights group that seeks to prevent Iranian participation in international sporting events, was established after the imprisonment, torture, and execution of wrestler Navid Afkari. In early 2021, United for Navid notified the IOC that Iranian military and political officials could be part of the Iranian delegation; it demanded an investigation by the IOC. On July 30, IOC spokesperson Mark Adams encouraged the group to provide evidence. 






Four Medals in Wrestling 

On August 3, Iran received its second medal in the 2021 games, a bronze in the men’s Greco-Roman 97-kilogram event. Mohammadhadi Saravi defeated Finland’s Arvi Savolainen 9-2 to win the medal. “I am happy to win the bronze medal, but I think I could have competed in the final. I am happy at the moment since I made my nation happy” Saravi said. 

On August 4, Mohammadreza Geraei won a gold medal after defeating Ukraine’s Parviz Nasibov 9-1 in the men’s Greco-Roman 67-kilogram event.

On August 5, Hassan Yazdanicharati – also known as “The Greatest” – won a silver medal in the men’s freestyle 86-kilogram event after losing 4-3 in the final match to American David Morris Taylor III, the so-called “Magic Man.” Yazdanicharati was in the lead toward the end of the match, but in the last 20 seconds, Taylor flipped him on his stomach to score two points.

On August 6, Amir Hossein Zare won a bronze medal in the men’s freestyle 125-kilogram event after defeating China’s Deng Zhiwei 5-0. “I deserved more at the Olympics, but I’m still grateful,” Zare said. “I hope I’ll build on the experience to win the gold in the future Olympics.”




Gold in Karate

Sajad Ganjzadeh faced off against Saudi Arabia’s Tareg Hamedi in the final match of men’s kumite 75-kilogram event. Hamedi took an early lead in the match. But just before the end of the first minute, he kicked Ganjzadeh in the head. The Iranian fell on his back, unconscious. Hamedi was disqualified for using excessive force. The Olympic version of karate is semi-contact; competitors are not to follow through with their strikes. “I’m happy about the gold medal, but I’m sad that I had to win it like this,” Ganjzadeh said.


Silver in Weightlifting 

On August 5, Ali Davoudi won a silver in the men’s +109-kilogram weightlifting event. He lifted a total of 441 kilograms – 200 kilograms in the snatch and 241 kilograms in the clean and jerk.


Iranian Defectors 

The four defectors on the refugee team included Kimia Alizadeh and Dina Pouryounes, females who both competed in Taekwondo, Saeid Fazoula, who competed in canoe sprinting for men, and Hamoon Derafshipur, who competed in Karate for men. 

Alizadeh had won a bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics. In January 2020, Alizadeh announced her decision to leave Iran, citing mandatory headscarves and social injustices. In 2021, Alizadeh’s first match pitted her against long-time friend Nahid Kiyani, a member of the Iranian team. Alizadeh dominated the match, scoring a 18-9 victory. Afterwards she embraced her friend and greeted the Iranian coaching staff. She scored a 16-12 victory against the two-time defending champion in her second match. She lost in the match for the bronze medal. 

In Tokyo, Pouryounes lost 24-3 in her first round to Wu Jingyu, a two-time gold medalist from China, in the 49-kilogram event. Pouryounes sought refuge in the Netherlands after fleeing Iran in 2015. She won her first international competition at the 2015 Polish Open while still living in a facility for asylum seekers.

In 2021, Fazoula did not progress to the semi-finals of the men’s kayak single 1000-meter race after placing fourth in the third quarterfinals. Fazoula left Iran one year after winning a silver medal at the 2014 Asia Games in South Korea. In 2015, during the World Canoe Sprint Championships in Italy, he uploaded a photo of himself in front of the Milan Cathedral to social media. Upon his return to Iran, authorities reportedly accused him of converting to Christianity, detained him for two days and threatened him with the death penalty. Fazoula then fled Iran and eventually settled in Germany. “If there is one thing I always tell myself, it’s this,” Fazloula told Deutsche Welle in June. “I just have to believe that I will manage, no matter what it is.”

Derafshipur won the bronze medal in kumite for Iran at the 2018 Karate World Championships. He left Iran for Canada in 2019 so that his wife, fellow martial artist Samira Malekipour, could become his coach. Rules in Iran did not permit the arrangement. “When we came to Canada, everyone told me it was impossible to get to the Olympics. There wasn’t much time. I was a little sad. But I told myself that anything is possible,” he told in April 2021. As of August 3, no data about his competition status for the games was available.   

A fifth defector, Saeid Mollaei, represented Mongolia at the 2021 Olympics. Mollaei left Iran after claiming to have been forced to throw a bout to avoid facing an Israeli opponent, Sagi Muki, at the 2019 World Judo Championships in Tokyo. On July 27, he took the silver medal in men’s 81-kilogram judo. Mollaei dedicated his win to Israel, where he trained and had even befriended Muki. “Thank you to Israel for all the good energy. This medal is dedicated to you as well and I hope Israel is happy with this victory, toda [thank you].”


Iran v. United States in Basketball 

The U.S. and Iran teams competed in basketball on July 28. The U.S. delegation—including one former and 12 National Basketball Association (NBA) players—won 120-66. It was a friendly match. The athletes applauded one another’s national anthem; players also shook hands both before and after the game. Some of the U.S. team members already knew Hamed Haddadi, the Iranian center who had played for the Memphis Grizzlies and the Phoenix Suns in the NBA.  

“People in different countries get along a whole lot better than their governments do,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said after the game. Iranian coach Mehran Shahintab observed, “People are different and separate from politics.” Iranian coach Mehran Shahintab said that Popovich was a great coach. “He praised my players, and I appreciate that. He is a respectful coach, and we learned a lot about basketball. We respect people. It’s a break from politics.”

Since the 1990s, the United States and Iran have engaged in unofficial sports diplomacy. In 1998, U.S. and Iranian wrestlers competed in Tehran and Stillwater, Oklahoma. Both events generated local fanfare and media coverage.




A Rare Israeli-Iranian Handshake

Before the basketball match between Iran and the Czech Republic on July 25, Iranian coach Mehran Shahintab shook hands with Ronen Ginzburg, the Israeli coach of the Czech Republic’s men’s basketball team. It was a unique moment for Iranian athletes, because Tehran bans Iranian athletes from engaging with their Israeli counterparts. The Czech team won the match at 84-78. After the game, Ginzburg reflected, “Perhaps this is also a message to the leaders [in Iran].”


Tess Rosenberg, a research analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace, assembled this report. 


Photo Credit: Flag bearers via Fars News Agency (CC BY 4.0)
Some of the information in this article was originally published on July 28, 2021.