Iran says climber Elnaz Rekabi will not be punished for competing without headscarf

Country's Olympic committee president says climber's competing in South Korea without a hijab 'not a big issue'

Iranian climber who competed without hijab returns to Tehran

Iranian climber who competed without hijab returns to Tehran
Powered by automated translation

Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi will not be punished or suspended after competing without a headscarf in South Korea, the country's Olympic committee president Mahmoud Khosravi Vafa said on Thursday.

Rekabi, 33, competed without a hijab during the International Federation of Sport Climbing's Asia Championships in Seoul on Sunday. She said her hijab had fallen off by mistake.

Supporters of Rekabi remain worried for her as other athletes have been harassed by the government for supporting the weeks-long protests in Iran.

Activists say security forces have already killed more than 200 people and arrested thousands in a continuing crackdown on dissent.

Mr Khosravi Vafa told AP there was no reason to take disciplinary action against Rekabi because not wearing her headscarf was an “unintentional” act.

An Instagram account associated with Rekabi also described the incident as “unintentional”. After returning to Tehran early on Wednesday, she doubled down on the statement, blaming feeling rushed to begin her climb.

A video recorded during the competition on Sunday, however, showed her relaxed and waving to the crowd.

“It’s a small issue. I’m surprised that it is being talked about so much,” Mr Khosravi Vafa said, despite protests over the mandatory hijab reaching more than 100 cities in Iran so far. “In our view, it was not a big issue.”

Mr Khosravi Vafa said he had discussed the incident with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach on Wednesday on the sidelines of the Association of National Olympic Committees General Assembly in Seoul. Mr Khosravi Vafa said he had spoken with Rekabi as well.

I’m surprised that it is being talked about so much ... In our view it was not a big issue.”
Mahmoud Khosravi Vafa, Iranian Olympic committee president

“I talked to her and told her that you definitely are very talented in sports and you should continue down this path to maybe qualify for the Paris Olympics and you’ll be fully supported by the Iranian Olympic committee,” he said.

The International Olympic Committee said on Wednesday that Rekabi had “returned to Iran safely and with her family”.

Mr Khosravi Vafa, however, described Rekabi as being “a guest at Iran’s Olympic committee hotel for one day, along with her family”. It was not known if Rekabi had a choice over the stay.

An image published by Iranian state media showed her in a meeting hours after returning to Tehran in the same black baseball cap and hoodie she wore after her flights.

Mr Khosravi Vafa said Rekabi would return to her home town on Thursday.

Rekabi competing without a hijab was seized upon by demonstrators, who have been protesting across the country for weeks.

Hundreds of people gathered outside Imam Khomeini International Airport for her arrival and cheered a woman they called “Elnaz the Champion”.

Robin Mitchell, a Fijian sports official who was elected the new president of the Association of National Olympic Committees at the assembly on Thursday, said he had not spoken about the issue with Iranian delegates and indicated that he was not aware any representatives from Iran were at the meetings.

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

Iran has been grappling with nationwide protests since the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been detained by the country’s morality police over her allegedly inappropriate clothing.

The demonstrations, which have prompted women to remove their hijabs in public, have drawn schoolchildren, oil workers and others out into the streets. They represent the most serious challenge to Iran’s theocracy since the mass protests surrounding the disputed 2009 presidential election.

Updated: June 19, 2023, 5:26 AM