In a single moment that changed history, Rudd Gullit, the captain of the Dutch national team, leapt high above his marker to head home the opening goal at the Euro 1988 final and secure the country’s victory against Russia. The Dutch had finally won their first major trophy led by a captain born to African parents.
The next day, the photo of winning team was spread on newspaper front pages across the world: Ruud Gullit, in his trademark dreadlocks among 10 white players raising the cup.
Gullit was more than a footballer. He was a symbol against the apartheid regime and was active in promoting the anti-apartheid campaign at a time when athletes didn’t take on controversial political views. Upon receiving the Ballon d’Or in 1987, he dedicated the award to Nelson Mandela, who was then imprisoned in the infamous Robben Island.
The enduring image of Gullit, the anti-apartheid sportsman lifting the trophy was a huge step forward in promoting a movement launched 30 years earlier by Dennis Brutus, an activist, journalist and university professor, to persuade athletes to oppose the South Africa’s racist government. Brutus launched a lonely campaign which soon gathered momentum to isolate South Africa from international sports until the country changed its white supremacist laws. In 1964, the International Olympics Committee suspended South Africa from the Tokyo Olympics.
Just three years after Gullit’s victory, the apartheid government fell and the campaigns by Gullit and the anti-apartheid movement, were instrumental in bringing about change.
Today, another effort is under way. The unjust execution of Greco-Roman wrestler, Navid Afkari has sparked worldwide condemnation. A number of athletes have joined the #United4Navid campaign to expose the bigotry, and political influence that have plagued Iranian sports for four decades.
The Islamic Republic, and their lobbies in the media have challenged the campaign as a plot to “take happiness from the people,” and that such actions would hurt the development of sports in the country.
It is instructive to examine how sports boycotts have been used effectively in recent history.
In 1980, US President Jimmy Carter boycotted the Moscow Olympics because of Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, and 65 countries joined the boycott.
Ironically, Iran, which had gone through its own Islamic revolution, also boycotted the Moscow Olympics.
Four years later, in 1984, the Soviet Union boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics and was joined by 13 countries, which included 12 Soviet socialist and communist satellites, and the Islamic Republic.
Neither of these two boycotts were supported by the athletic community and it was imposed on them by politicians. Indeed, there are no accounts of anyone arguing that such boycotts hurt the people or the development of sports.
These two measures, designed and implemented by governments, implicitly endorsed Dennis Brutus’ idea that sport could influence political change.
In 1992, following the Yugoslav civil war, UEFA banned the Yugoslavian football team from the Nations Cup and replaced it with Denmark. The irony is that the Danish team which had not expected to be in the tournament, ended up defeating world champions Germany 2-0 to become European champions.
At the time, the decision to ban Yugolsav football team was widely supported by commentators and athletes. Yugoslavia disintegrated a few months later and the civil war raged for a number years before the region achieved peace. But the sporting ban did not apply to individuals – Monica Seles competed in a number of tennis championships including the French Open.
Today, the region’s sport has flourished more than before, introducing hundreds of stars such as tennis champion Novak Djokovic and Real Madrid ace Luka Modric to the world of sports.
Sporting sanctions have also been used against Iraq and some African countries. A more recent case is the World Anti-Doping Committee against systematic corruption and widespread doping in Russian sports.
Surprisingly, it was the Russian politicians, and not the athletes, who were most irked by the ban. During the four-year period of sanctions, Russian athletes who had no role in corruption and doping could compete in sports under a neutral flag. It is the abusers who are harmed in the first place, not the athletes.
Rather, the system of abuse of athletes will reach a dead end.
All athletes in Iran, both female and male have experienced political pressure and discrimination, and seen firsthand, the cadres of intelligence agents who monitor their every move at international events to prevent them from defecting. Sports in the Islamic Republic is both corrupt and politicized.
The #United4Navid campaign is an opportunity for Iranian athletes to join the social movement of the Iranian people in a civil way and away from violence at the lowest cost.
The path of the anti-apartheid movement’s campaign to ban South African from international sports provides a blueprint for success.
Iranians want to see their athlete on podiums and not like Navid Afkari, on the gallows.
BY: Dr. Vashig
Dr. Vashig, is an Iranian athlete based in Tehran. For his personal safety he uses a pen name.