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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Refugee from Iran falls short of a medal but scores a point for women

In a politically charged clash, which had all the makings for a movie script, the refugee athlete used her superior physical strength to record an easy 18-9 win.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Tokyo |
Updated: July 26, 2021 11:25:53 am
ioc refugee team tokyo olympics, refugee team controversy tokyo olympics, refugee team players leaving, refugee camp issues kenyaKimia Alizadeh of the Refugee Olympic Team celebrates after competing (Reuters)

From the long dark tunnel, Kimia Alizadeh walked into the big bright arena, her hair loose, pumping her fist as she stared into a television camera. A couple of steps behind was her friend, former teammate and one-time compatriot Nahid Kiyani, wearing a headscarf, not looking at the cameras.

Had she looked back, Alizadeh would have seen flashes of her own past. In 2016, she made a similar entry at the Rio Olympics. There, Alizadeh became the first woman from Iran to win an Olympic medal. On Sunday, she made another Olympic appearance, and came agonisingly close to another medal. This time, as a refugee.

The taekwondo player strutted out in Tokyo as one of the 29 members of the Olympic Refugee Team. It was a remarkable twist for the athlete who had emboldened young Iranian women and was described by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani as “my daughter” during an election rally four years ago.

In January 2020, however, she announced her life-altering decision via an Instagram post. “I am one of the millions of repressed women in Iran who have been playing games for years. They took it wherever they wanted. I wore whatever they said. I repeated every sentence they ordered,” she wrote in the long, scathing post that accused the Iranian regime of “hypocrisy, lies and injustice”.

Alizadeh was born in Karaj as the daughter of a tablecloth maker. She wished to do something different and so, as a seven-year-old, walked into a gym close to her house, which offered taekwondo lessons. It wasn’t love at first sight, she confessed in an interview to the Financial Times, but the martial art grew on her.

Within a year, she was Iran’s national champion. In 2014, after she became the junior world champion and a Youth Olympics gold medalist, her stardom spread across Iran. In a country that is always under the scanner for its record on women’s rights, that does not allow women to enter stadiums, Alizadeh became an instant icon.

After she won the bronze in Rio, Alizadeh’s popularity surged so much that the Iranian government, at one point, used her name to appeal to female voters. So when she defected, her decision jolted them. Alizadeh was severely criticised by many, not just in the government but among the public as well, and received threats on social media.

But then, her remarkable journey first took her to the Netherlands, where she sought refuge for a few weeks before proceeding to Germany.

Her naturalization process in Germany wasn’t completed in time for the Olympics. So, as an International Olympic Committee Refugee Athlete Scholarship holder, she made it to Tokyo on the Refugee Team, which made its first appearance in Rio five years ago.

She isn’t the only one. On Tuesday, judoka Saeid Mollaei will make his Olympic debut for Mongolia. Not too long ago, he was one of Iran’s biggest medal prospects.

Mollaei left Iran for Germany just a few months before Alizadeh took the big step. Mollaei took the decision after he was told to throw his World Championship semifinal at the 2019 World Championship in Tokyo to avoid having to compete in the final against an opponent from Israel, a country Iran does not recognise. Mollaei will begin his quest for a medal against Kazakhstan’s Didar Khamza – but representing Mongolia.

As for Alizadeh, it was fate that her first bout as a refugee athlete saw her being pitted against an Iranian. In a politically charged clash, which had all the makings for a movie script, the refugee athlete used her superior physical strength to record an easy 18-9 win. After the bout, Alizadeh embraced Kiyani and greeted the Iranian coaching staff.

In her next match, she dispatched two-time defending Olympic champion Jade Jones of Britain in another stunning display before proceeding to beat higher-ranked Chinese player, Zhou Lijun. However, Alizadeh lost to Tatiana Minina in the semifinals. She still had a chance to repeat her Rio performance but lost the bronze medal match by a narrow margin to Turkey’s HK Ilgun.

Alizadeh might have fallen short on Sunday, but the world knows that she has fought bigger fights in life. And won.

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