Iran Olympic chief says no punishment coming for Elnaz Rekabi, but concern remains

SEOUL, South Korea — The president of Iran’s National Olympic Committee said Thursday that competitive climber Elnaz Rekabi will not be fined or suspended after she competed in South Korea over the weekend without wearing her country’s mandatory headscarf.

However, supporters of Rekabi remain concerned for the 33-year-old climber as other athletes have been targeted by the government for supporting the weeks-long protests that have rocked Iran. Activists say security forces have killed over 200 people and arrested thousands in an ongoing crackdown on dissidents.

Speaking to The Associated Press in Seoul, Mahmoud Khosravi Vafa said there was no reason to take disciplinary action against Rekabi as not wearing a headscarf or hijab was an “unintentional” act on her part.

An Instagram account linked to Rekabi also described the decision as “unintentional,” and she did so after arriving in Tehran early Wednesday. She accused she of being rushed to the competition, although video of her climb on Sunday appeared to show her relaxed and waving to the crowd.

“It’s a small problem. I’m surprised it’s being talked about so much,” Khosravi Vafa said, despite protests against compulsory hijab reaching more than 100 cities in Iran. “From our point of view it wasn’t a big problem.”

Khosravi Vafa said he spoke about Rekabi with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach on the sidelines of the General Assembly of the Association of National Olympic Committees in Seoul on Wednesday. Khosravi Vafa said he also spoke to Rekabi.

“I spoke to her and told her that you are definitely very talented in sports and you should continue on this path to maybe qualify for the Paris Olympics and you have the full support of the Iranian Olympic Committee,” Khosravi Vafa said in a remark in Farsi.

The IOC on Wednesday described Rekabi as “safe and returned to Iran with her family”.

However, Khosravi Vafa described Rekabi as “a one-day guest at the Iranian Olympic Committee hotel along with her family”. It was not clear if Rekabi had a choice about the stay. A picture released by Iranian state media showed her at a meeting hours after returning to Tehran, wearing the same black baseball cap and hoodie she wore after her flights.

Rekabi will return to her hometown on Thursday, Khosravi Vafa said.

Khosravi Vafa did not specifically address suspicions that Iranian authorities confiscated Rekabi’s passport after the Seoul incident and forced her to leave early.

Rekabi’s participation without a headscarf was picked up by demonstrators who have been protesting in the Islamic Republic for weeks. Hundreds of people gathered outside Imam Khomeini International Airport for their arrival, cheering on a woman they dubbed “Elnaz the Champion” and whom they see as the inspiration for their ongoing protests.

When asked if he had raised the issue with Iranian delegates, Robin Mitchell, a Fijian sports official who was elected new President of the Association of National Olympic Committees at Thursday’s convention, said they had not spoken and indicated that he did not know that the Iranians did this at the meetings.

Iran has been gripped by nationwide protests since the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by the country’s vice squad for clothing.

The demonstrations, which have prompted women to remove their hijabs in public, have drawn school-age children, oil workers and others onto the streets, and pose the most serious challenge to Iran’s theocracy since mass protests surrounding the disputed 2009 presidential election. Iran Olympic chief says no punishment coming for Elnaz Rekabi, but concern remains

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