Kimia Alizadeh and Co.: Why Iranian athletes are turning their backs on Tehran | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 23.01.2020
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Kimia Alizadeh and Co.: Why Iranian athletes are turning their backs on Tehran

Olympic bronze medalist Kimia Alizadeh is just the latest in a growing list of athletes who no longer compete for Iran. Each of them grew tired of being both used and pressurized by the regime.

It's not the kind of thing you would do if you were looking to make new friends in high places in Tehran. On January 11, Kimia Alizadeh used an Instagram post to address the "oppressed Iranian people" and explain why she had left her country to seek refuge in Europe. The post has drawn more than 600,000 likes.

In the post, the 21-year-old described herself as "one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran."

"None of us matter for them [the Iranian regime], we are just tools," she said, adding that she didn't "want to climb the steps of corruption and lies" and that she had "no other desire than taekwondo, security and a happy and healthy life."

This came from an athlete who, in Rio de Janeiro 2016, had made Iranian sports history by winning bronze in taekwondo, making her the country's first woman to win an Olympic medal. The leadership of the Islamic Republic was lavish in its praise of the then-18-year-old. President Hassan Rouhani was quoted in the regime-friendly Tehran Times as saying that she had "shown the world Iranian and Islamic culture and demonstrated the courage and competence of Iranian women."

However, Alizadeh's recent decision to turn her back on the Islamic Republic didn't make it into the paper, which simply reported that she had resigned from Iran's taekwondo team.

Earlier this week, Alizadeh said she now wanted to compete for Germany, but this could only happen if she were to be granted German citizenship, a process that usually requires eight years of residency, but can be accelerated for elite athletes if the authorities determine that doing so would be of "special public interest."

Fateful visit to a Catholic cathedral

Alizaheh is just the latest in a growing list of elite Iranian athletes who have chosen to leave their country after deciding they no longer wanted to be pawns of the regime. Among those who are now in Germany is canoeist Saeid Fazloula, who won silver at the Asian Games 2014.  He fled Iran after being accused of trying to convert to Christianity, for which he was briefly imprisoned. The main evidence against Fazloula was that he had visited Milan's cathedral during the 2015 World Championships. The 27-year-old now lives in and competes for Germany.

Kanu-Rennsport | Saeid Fazloula, Iran (picture-alliance/dpa/Augenklick/GES/H. Prang)

Saeid Fazloula now competes under the German flag

Javad Esfandiari was the third-string goalkeeper on the Iranian futsal team that won the Asian championship in 2016. He too now lives in Germany after saying something at a press conference that was seen as critical of the coaching team. The now-31-year-old said that after the incident he had feared not only for his own life, but for the lives of his family.

World judo champion 

By traveling to Germany in September 2019, Saeid Mollaei, the 2018 world judo champion, caused every bit as much of a stir as Kimia Alizadeh has in recent days. 

Mollaei said that during last year's world judo championships in Tokyo, Iranian officials had ordered him to pull out of his semifinal to avoid facing an Israeli opponent, Sagi Muki, in the final. Instead, Mollaei chose to throw the fight.

"Not only I, but the whole world knows what sort of consequences there would have been had I refused," he told DW a few weeks later. "So I complied with the law to avoid any problems for myself or my family." 

Last month, the 28-year-old was granted Mongolian citizenship.

Shooting star of chess

The unwritten but universally understood ban on Iranians competing against Israeli athletes has also driven a number of others away from the Islamic Republic. Raheleh Asemani, who won silver in taekwondo at the Asian games in 2010, opted to stay in Belgium after competing against an Israeli woman in 2012. From then on, she competed under the flag of the Taekwondo World Federation, before switching to Belgium in 2016.

 Up-and-coming chess star Alireza Firouzja has also turned his back on Tehran. The 16-year-old grand master has been living with his father in France for the past six months.  The Iranian chess association confirmed late last year that Firouzja would no longer compete for the Islamic Republic. 

Tata-Steel-Schachturnier 2020 | Alireza Firouzja, Iran vs. Magnus Carlsen, Norwegen (picture-alliance/ANP/Koen Suyk)

Alireza Firouzja recently took on world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway

He competed in the 2019 World Rapid and Blitz Championship under the flag of FIDE, the world chess federation. He also finished second behind Norwegian superstar Magnus Carlsen in rapid chess. The last time he complied with Iran's rule against competing against Israelis was in April of last year, when he declined to face an Israeli opponent at an event in Germany.

Absence of a headscarf

Mitra Hejazipour, 26, who plays in the chess Bundesliga in Germany, was kicked off Iran's national team at the start of this year after she had competed at a chess tournament in Moscow without a headscarf. Dorsa Derakshani, who was kicked off the team for the same reason two years ago, now competes for the United States.

The world-renowned chess referee, Shohreh Bayat also found herself in hot water earlier this year for failing to wear a headscarf at the women's world championships in Vladivostok. The 32-year old failed to return to Iran afterwards, saying she feared for her safety.

Schachweltmeisterschaft der Frauen 2020 | Alexandra Goryachkina vs. Ju Wenjun | Shohreh Bayat, Schiedsrichterin (picture-alliance/dpa/Tass/Y. Smityuk)

Shohreh Bayat (second from left) didn't feel safe returning to Iran, so she didn't

A harder line

Some international sports federations have become frustrated by Tehran's constant interference and are starting to take a harder line. In February 2018, United World Wrestling handed a six-month suspension to Iranian wrestler Alireza Karimi Machiani and slapped a two-year ban on his coach, Hamidreza Yamshidi. At the under-23 World Championships in November 2017, Yamashidi had yelled at Machiani from the sidelines, urging him to throw his match so that he would not have to face an Israeli later on in the event.

In September 2019, the International Judo Federation (IJF) reacted to the Saeid Mollaei case by banning Iranian athletes from all international competitions until further notice, saying that Tehran had violated the IJF's code of ethics and the Olympic Charter.

Judo WM 2019 | Saeid Mollaei aus Iran gegen Matthias Casse aus Belgien (Getty Images/AFP/C. Triballeau)

Saeid Mollaei (right) at the 2019 World Championships in Tokyo

Speaking at a press conference in Lausanne two weeks ago, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach referred to the Iran case as an "ongoing process." He said the Iranian Minister of Sport and the head of the Iranian National Olympic Committee had promised him in a letter that "Iran would in future fully comply with the provisions of the Olympic Charter."

Supporting political neutrality?

Some have interpreted this to mean that the Iranian leadership have decided to rethink the country's sports policy. Most observers, however, see the letter as mere lip service, and a report published by the Tehran Times in mid-December makes it look as if the Iranian leadership is twisting things to suit its purposes. It cited a letter from IOC President Bach to Iranian President Rouhani, which read: "I trust that you and your government will continue to support these principles of political neutrality and solidarity so that the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 and beyond will be a true celebration of unity in diversity of all humankind."

But did Bach really use the word "continue?"  This would imply that Tehran had been upholding the principle of political neutrality in sport all along. In response to a DW query, the IOC said in statement that the letter in question had not been sent specifically to Tehran, but to the heads of state of all of the 186 members of the United Nations - after the General assembly passed a resolution guaranteeing the Olympic truce during next summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Watch video 01:26

The tragic story of Saeid Mollaei

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