PtG Article 07.02.2024

Sporting bodies called out for lack of action on Palestine and Afghan women

An impactful session at Play the Game 2024 unveiled the double standards in how sporting bodies treat Palestinians and Afghan women and exposed the flaws in the neutrality debate within sports.

“The world of sports has turned its back on Palestine.”

This was the opening line in a speech given by Katarina Pijetlovic, associate professor at the Catolica Global School of Law in Lisbon, underscoring the glaring disparity in the reactions by international sports organisations to the war in Gaza compared to their responses to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The contrast in how the sports world has treated each conflict is stark.

In the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the world’s largest nation was transformed into a pariah in the world of sports. Russia’s national and club soccer teams were banned from international competition, including the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. 

The International Paralympic Committee also moved to bar athletes from Russia and Belarus on the eve of the Paralympic Games in Beijing, while several international federations also took steps to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from international competition.

Pijetlovic revealed that FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have avoided making statements denouncing the Israel-Gaza war and the ensuing humanitarian crisis despite the rising death toll and mounting pressure to take action. 

She also revealed that more than 300 Palestinian sports clubs and dozens of major Palestinian civil society organizations have launched a call to ban Israel from the upcoming Olympics in Paris this summer “until it ends its grave violations of international law, particularly its system of apartheid and its ongoing genocide in Gaza.”

Lack of both moral and governance standards

The calls for Israel to be banished from international sports are nothing new. Activists have long advocated for Israel’s football association to be expelled or suspended for hosting Fifa-sanctioned matches in Israeli settlements in the West Bank – a territory that has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967.

The renewed calls for sanctions are in response to the ongoing war on Gaza, which has wreaked devastation on the strip, including its rich sports movement. However, FIFA and the IOC’s lack of response weakens their credibility as moral arbitrators in the sports world. 

“Having no internal policy or coherence on this crucial matter equals not just the most serious moral discrimination but reflects both the lack of moral and governance standards,” said Pijetlovic.

“Gianni Infantino doesn’t feel Palestinian today.”

Females doing sport can be punished by death

Earlier in the session, Friba Rezayee –one of the first Afghan female Olympians – spoke about the Taliban’s gender apartheid and the criminalization of sport for Afghan women. 

Rezayee revealed that the Taliban regime forbids women’s sport and considers it to be contrary to their strict interpretation of Sharia law (Islamic law). For them it is a sinful act, and they have declared their intent to suppress all athletic participation of women outside the home. 

In fact, the first foreign diplomacy move made by the Taliban was to release an official decree on September 19, 2021 banning women from participating in or playing sports.

She added that the Taliban will punish any female athlete if she is caught or seen going to the local sports facilities and or gyms. The punishments include imprisonment, torture, and the death penalty. 

Friba Rezayee

Friba Rezayee spoke about the Taliban’s gender apartheid and the criminalization of sport for Afghan women at Play the Game 2024. Photo: Thomas Søndergaard / Play the Game

Afghanistan expected to send only men to Paris 2024

Meanwhile, Afghan athletes such as the professional men’s cricket team are awarded millions of dollars by the International Cricket Council and can participate in international competitions without restrictions. 

Rezayee stressed that while the Afghan national Olympic committee is collaborating with the Taliban in restricting women’s rights to participate in sports, the Afghan NOC has not been sanctioned or banned by the Olympic movement. In fact, the Afghan Olympic team, composed entirely of men, is expected to take part in the Paris Games: 

“Where the first team that appears in the Paris 2024 Olympic opening ceremony is all men, walking and waving to the crowd under the black and white Taliban flag. It’s known that the order of entrance to the stadium is alphabetical by the host country language,” Rezayee said.

“This would mean the same thing as a team entering the Olympics under the ISIS flag!”

While the session stirred a heated debate among audience members during the Q&A portion, it succeeded in laying bare the double standards pervasive among international sports bodies, especially when it comes to countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, and Palestine. 

As the discussion drew to a close, it became evident that the time for complacency had passed and that the call for accountability had resonated loud and clear.


Watch the video from the session 'Political neutrality: A utopian dream for sport?'

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