Iranian Wushu champion Maryam Hashemi giving her medal to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei

Iran’s Supreme Leader Must Return His Medals Over Doping

Friday, 02/23/2024

An Iranian Wushu champion who had previously presented all her medals to the Supreme Leader has been busted for doping, with the international federation ordering her to return the medals. 

Maryam Hashemi, a proud member of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) in the Kurdish majority city of Kermanshah, had dedicated her world championship gold medal to Ali Khamenei in 2019 and in return received his Keffiyeh, a symbol of allegiance with Iran’s ruler. 

"The first time I dedicated my medal to the Supreme Leader, I made a vow to myself that I will present every valuable medal I earn to him," she said in 2019. In total she had given five medals from international events to Khamenei and met with him at least seven times.

The first time she gave her medal to Khamenei was in 2013, when she made headlines for her unconventional behavior during a meeting with the country's most senior figure. Without saying anything, she got up and walked over to the Supreme Leader and handed him her medal, against set protocols. 

In spite of the shame, Hashemi, who was given a four-year ban from all athletic competitions after she was found guilty of doping the anabolic steroid nandrolone in the 2019 championship in China, has now resurfaced after her ban expired in October and is looking for sponsors for her city’s team. 

Maryam Hashemi's doping test result

Shahrbanou Mansourian, another Iranian wushu champion, was hit with a 28-month ban from participating in any domestic and international competitions only for blowing the whistle on Hashemi’s doping and complaining that she had been fast-tracked through the national team qualifiers and picked up for the squad unfairly. “Hashemi was defeated in three qualifying contests in front of an audience of 2,000. However, they still chose her for the world competitions,” she said. 

The martial artist, who consistently maintained her allegiance to the Islamic Republic principles including advertisement for wearing hijab, is just another example that athletes who are on the side of the regime play by a different set of rules amid an ingrained culture of cheating. 

A well-known case is Hossein Rezazadeh, an Olympic champion and World Weightlifting champion who has been selected as the Iran Sportsperson of the Year award four times, more than any other athlete in the country's history. He has been found guilty of doping several times but unfettered to his career as he used to climb on the podium with a framed photo of Khamenei numerous times. "Our (Muslim) religion forbids doping," he famously said.

When he was at the helm of Iran’s weightlifting national team, the country’s squad was mired with cases of doping allegations. In December 2009, Iran’s weightlifting federation permanently banned Rezazadeh and the national team's technical staff from any professional activity in the field due to systematic doping for national athletes. A few days later, he was appointed as the head of the federation. 

Iran’s ruler Ali Khamenei kissing weightlifting champion Hossein Rezazadeh

The undue influence the Islamic Republic exerts over athletes has been aggravating the dichotomy of those with and against the regime in Iran, where several athletes face suspensions and legal actions for simply criticizing the authorities. The schism between the popular athletes who have chosen to be on the side of people and the ones who have been vocal supporters of the regime has especially been deepening since the 2022 protests. A large number of athletes at different levels have been persecuted for expressing solidarity with the nationwide protests following the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody in September 2022. Several of these have since been forced into exile in sports from chess to football.

Amidst growing tensions between the government and the populace, football, the most popular sport in the world, has morphed into a battleground for ideological conflict. A special predicament is the support for the Iranian football (soccer) team, whose members met with President Ebrahim Raisi just before leaving for Qatar for the World Cup in 2022. Later it was revealed that the players were given permits to import foreign cars without paying taxes. In spite of this, they refused to sing the national anthem at the games in Doha, causing mass outrage in Tehran for the rebellion. In their following match, they sang the anthem.

A growing number of Iranian athletes have been defecting from the Iranian squad to represent other countries in international competitions. Around 30 Iranian athletes have defected in recent years, seeking asylum in other countries while the trend is gaining momentum following the 2022 protests. In addition to dress code restrictions, another issue forcing Iranian athletes to defect is Tehran’s policy of not allowing them to compete against Israelis.

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