Did Iranian TV really censor these women runners?

Screenshot from a video widely shared on Twitter in September and October 2019.
Screenshot from a video widely shared on Twitter in September and October 2019.

As international athletes faced off this week at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, a video claiming to show “censorship” of women’s athletics in Iran was viewed by more than three million times on Twitter. The video shows female sprinters with their bodies covered by crude black rectangles and asterisks. But the video in question dates back to 2013, and rather than censoring women’s sporting competitions, Iranian state TV tends not to broadcast them at all.

The video has been circulating since late September, tweeted by several different users in Spanish and English.

Video published October 1, 2019 and viewed more than 3 million times. Its caption in Spanish reads: 'Iranian television: censorship of women’s athletics during a broadcast. Clearly there are certain parts of the world where the real battles for freedom should be fought.'

Video published September 30, 2019 on Twitter and seen more than 400,000 times.

One French-speaking user, @tprincedelamour, tweeted the video with the hashtag #StopIslam, warning that France could see the same kind of censorship in 20 years.

Video published on Twitter October 2, 2019. The French caption reads: 'This is how they broadcast women’s athletics on TV in Iran. Some say debates over the Islamic veil, the burkini and the burqa are pointless, but if we’re not careful that’s what we’re going to see in France in 20 years… #StopIslam'

While some web users were outraged that Iran should use such censorship, others urged respect for Iran and its cultural differences.

This tweet from October 2, 2019 reads in Spanish: 'This is what happens when you have any kind of extremism.'

One of the comments reads: 'Mr. Adorni, just as we don’t like it when others judge us here in Argentina, the Iranians don’t like it when people from outside give their opinions. Every country has its traditions and culture. Let’s respect them if we want to be respected too. All the best.'

A 100m final from 2013 in Paris

A close look at the video shows that it is not in fact from the World Championships under way in Doha. At 0:19 in the video, a banner reading "Mairie de Paris" (City of Paris) is visible. Also visible onscreen are the winning time of 10.91 seconds and the windspeed of -0.2 m/sec.

A search for 100m races won in Paris with those times quickly leads to a race held on July 6, 2013 in the Stade de France, north of Paris. The IAAF Diamond League event was won by Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in 10.92 seconds (the winning time was adjusted shortly after the end of the race).

This video of the women’s 100m final in the IAAF Diamond League in Paris was published July 6, 2013. The race can also be seen in this video, at 1:40, from a different angle.

The Observers team was not able to trace the origin of the first 4 seconds of the edited video, which show a single athlete in the starting blocks. The shot does not in any case come from a 100m race: the starting line is staggered, as it would be for a longer race.

Screengrab from the 'censored' video shared by Twitter users in September and October 2019.


A 'censorship' technique created as satire

So even if the race itself dates back to 2013, did Iranian TV censor it at the time?

The idea of covering the women’s bodies with rectangles and asterisks appears to come from a satirical news show called "OnTen" that ran on the Voice of America’s Persian-language channel.

In a video posted on the show’s YouTube channel July 18, 2013 with the caption "Women and Sports" (below), OnTen’s presenters discuss censorship in sports. At 1:15, they suggest using rectangles to cover male wrestlers’ bare limbs so women in Iran can watch. Then, starting at 1:45, they show women competing in gymnastics, athletics and diving events, with increasingly absurd rectangles and asterisks obscuring their bodies. At 3:01, the host concludes: "That’s how you solve the problem of showing women’s sports on TV."

Video published July 18, 2013 on the TheONTENTV YouTube channel.

While women in Iran participate and compete in many different sports, state TV does not broadcast most women’s competitions because of restrictions on showing women’s bodies uncovered. Sports in which the body is covered, such as taekwondo, are not restricted.

READ MORE: Iranian TV doesn’t broadcast women’s sports, so fans create their own coverage

This article was written by Chloé Lauvergnier (@clauvergnier).