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Olympic officials resisted pressure to ban Iran from the Tokyo Games, but they’ve banned teams before

In these 9 cases, sporting authorities tried to ban a country from international competition — sometimes for years

Over the weekend, an Iranian defector, one of four Iranians on the Refugee Olympic Team, defeated her taekwondo opponent — a member of the Iranian national team. While the Tokyo Olympics look different from other Games in other years, one Olympic tradition continues: sports and political controversies.

Iran’s harsh rules for athletes, particularly women, prompted calls from many athletes and human rights activists for the International Olympic Committee to ban Iran from competing in Tokyo. In 2020, the Iranian government executed a top wrestler, allegedly for killing a security guard during an anti-government protest. Official restrictions on women’s rights also limit women’s ability to participate in — or watch — sports. And Iran forbids its athletes from competing against anyone from Israel.

However, the IOC refused to ban Iran, arguing against an Olympic ban in this case. When have countries actually been banned from major international sporting events? Our research sheds some light on this question.

Here’s how we did our research

We gathered information on all major sports sanctions cases in history. We defined “major cases” as those involving bans from the Olympics or the world’s most popular sport — soccer. We didn’t include minor cases, like temporary bans from international weightlifting competitions, which typically receive less attention.

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In total, we identified nine cases: eight of them included Olympic bans and five featured countries banned from nearly all international sports.

Most cases involved clear violations of the Olympic Charter

Two of the bans resulted from overt racial and gender discrimination that extended into the sporting realm. South Africa was banned from international soccer (1957-1991) and the Olympics (1964-1991) because of the apartheid government’s policies that privileged Whites in sports and many other areas of life. Afghanistan was banned from the 2000 Sydney Olympics because the Taliban government forbade women’s participation in any sports.

According to the Olympic Charter, all individuals have the right to participate in sports regardless of their race, sex, religion or political views. Blatant racial and gender discrimination in sports thereby accounts for one reason that countries find themselves banned from the international sports scene.

Another clear violation involves government meddling in a National Olympic Committee. These institutions exist to promote the goals of the Olympic movement, so political interference is strictly prohibited.

Kuwait was banned from the 2016 Olympics after the IOC determined that this type of government interference was occurring. Iraq (2008) and India (2012-2014) received similar bans, although both countries came into compliance with IOC rules in time to compete.

A third clear violation that can get a country sidelined is government-sponsored doping. Doping charges have kept Russia from the Olympics since 2018, although its athletes are competing — and winning medals — in Tokyo as “ROC athletes.”

The Russian case resembles that of East Germany, which ran a decades-long doping program designed to help the country win more Olympic medals. However, East Germany eluded an Olympic ban and much of the doping evidence remained hidden until the end of the Cold War.

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These doping cases illustrate that some countries may be capable of evading or fighting back against sports sanctions. In the Russian case, the nation received a relatively light sentence, probably because of the influence it wields over international sports organizations.

Bans can result from broader political pressure campaigns

From 1966 to 1979, Rhodesia was banned from most international sporting events as part of a British-led effort to delegitimize the country’ s minority-rule government. During the Bosnian War, Yugoslavia was banned from all international sports from 1992 to 1995, because of a U.N. resolution that aimed to isolate the country.

Likewise, some 60 countries boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Although the boycott was not an official Olympic ban, it represented a widespread effort to punish a country in the sporting realm for political reasons.

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One case surprised us — the government welcomed the ban

A violent incident involving drunken Liverpool fans left 38 people trampled to death before the 1985 European Cup final. In response, Europe’s soccer authorities banned all English football clubs from participating in European competitions from 1985 to 1990.

The British government actually supported the decision. The ban, and the focus on violent behavior in the stands, gave the government stronger incentives to pass reforms to help bring its “football hooligan” problem under control. The violence around this match, and other soccer matches across Europe, made clear to many government leaders that extreme measures were needed to stop fan violence.

Sports bans have had a variety of motivations

Given the small number of major sports sanctions cases throughout history, the variety of reasons underlying these bans is remarkable. Motivations have ranged from addressing clear rule violations such as racial and gender discrimination, to isolating certain governments and denying them the legitimacy and attention of competition on the international stage, to combating fan misbehavior.

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Will future cases of sports sanctions be so wide-ranging? It appears likely. Some U.S. lawmakers have urged that the 2022 Beijing Olympics be moved to another country, in response to China’s harsh treatment of ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang and poor human rights record.

The 2022 World Cup host, Qatar, likewise faces pressure for its human rights record. Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) have further stated that governments engaging in serious human rights abuses should be barred from hosting the Olympics.

International sports can provide countries — and their leaders — with prestige and legitimacy. It’s likely we’ll continue to see global sports competitions entangled in great power politics and broader human rights campaigns moving forward.

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Andrew Bertoli is an assistant professor in the School of Global and Public Affairs at IE University in Spain.

Thandiwe Keet is a graduate student studying sports and politics at the University of Waikato in New Zealand.

Aleksandra Smajevic is an undergraduate student at IE University studying law and international relations.