Video clips that purportedly show Iran's water polo team failing to sing the national anthem at a competition in Thailand have appeared on social media in what the anti-government protest movement sees as the latest show of solidarity from athletes.
The video was shared online by many ordinary Iranian Twitter users. It showed the men's team not singing as the Iranian national anthem played at an Asian Championship match against India in Bangkok on Tuesday.
Reuters could not verify the video clips and the Iranian Federation of Swimming, Diving and Waterpolo was not available for comment.
Iran's deputy sports minister, Maryam Kazemipour, said on Wednesday some Iranian female athletes have acted against Islamic norms during international events and apologized for their actions shortly after that, the state news agency reported.
Social media users saw the refusal to sing as a show of support for the eight-week-old protests, one of the biggest challenges to Iran's clerical leaders since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
"One of the most radical acts by the Iranian national water polo team. We know sport teams that have sided with the people and we appreciate your support," said one unverified Twitter user.
Anti-government demonstrations erupted in September after the death of a Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, who had been detained by morality police for allegedly flouting the Islamic Republic's strict dress code imposed on women.
An Iranian coroner's report has denied Amini had died due to blows to the head and limbs while in custody and linked her death to pre-existing medical conditions, state media said.
Protests triggered by her death quickly turned into a popular revolt, with a wide range of people taking part, from students to doctors to lawyers to workers to athletes.
This was not the first time that Iranian sports people have taken actions that have been interpreted as gestures of support for the protests.
SUPPORT FOR ATHLETES
Last week, national beach soccer team players refused to sing Iran's anthem at the beginning of a match against the United Arab Emirates in Dubai, according to a widely followed activist Twitter account known as 1500TASVIR.
Then on Sunday, the players did not cheer or celebrate after defeating Brazil to win the championship, the activist account said.
One Iranian player even celebrated his goal by pretending to cut his hair, a gesture of protest by Iranian women, who have been at the forefront of the protests.
The Iranian beach football federation said on Monday the players' actions were "unwise".
Another Twitter user, identified on the site as Mehdi Andarziyan, a student, chided authorities for not quickly stamping out dissent, saying:
"Mr Minister of Sports, if you had slapped the beach soccer players, the water polo players would not have disrespected the anthem of the Islamic Republic!"
On Sunday, skater Niloufar Mardani performed without a headscarf in a competition in Turkey. She later published a video shared on Telegram accounts, which Reuters could not verify, that show her apologising.
The footage explains that she participated independently in Turkey in the skating tournament at her own expense and that she did not see that her veil had fallen off when she took off her helmet, which is required while appearing on the prize podium.
She also appeared without her veil away from the podium.
Mardani said her story was manipulated by "foreign media".
Iran's sports ministry said Mardani did not get its authorization to participate in the event in Turkey. It criticized her action and said has not been part of the national team since last month.
More than 1,000 people have been indicted in Tehran Province alone in connection with what the government calls "riots".
The activist HRANA news agency said 321 protesters had been killed in the unrest as of Monday, including 50 children.
Thirty-eight members of the security forces had also been killed, it said.
State media said last month that more than 46 members of the security forces, including police officers, had been killed. Government officials have not provided an estimate of any wider death count.