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Features

Chess Master’s Flight to Switzerland is Latest in a Painful Sporting Exodus

June 13, 2020
Payam Younesipour
4 min read
Iranian chess grandmaster Ghazal Hakimifard has accepted Swiss citizenship
Iranian chess grandmaster Ghazal Hakimifard has accepted Swiss citizenship
Last April boxer Mobin Kahrazeh sought refuge in Austria because of what he called "political interference in sports"
Last April boxer Mobin Kahrazeh sought refuge in Austria because of what he called "political interference in sports"
Olympian judoka Saeed Molaei moved to Europe after Iran forced him to lose a fight so as not to compete with an Israeli opponent
Olympian judoka Saeed Molaei moved to Europe after Iran forced him to lose a fight so as not to compete with an Israeli opponent
Top chess player Mitra Hejazipour has also opted to stay in France, saying her life and career in Iran were "dominated by hijab"
Top chess player Mitra Hejazipour has also opted to stay in France, saying her life and career in Iran were "dominated by hijab"

Ghazal Hakimifard, a chess champion and Iranian Women Grandmaster, has changed her flag and will battle it out for Switzerland from now on.

The 2019 and 2020 calendar years have been record-breaking in terms of the volume of Iranian sporting elites migrating elsewhere.

From the 2019 New Year holidays, when boxer Mobin Kahrazeh sought refuge in Austria because of what he called "political interference in sports" and "pressure not to fight an Israeli athlete," through to the end of the year, Iranian athletes abandoned the country of their birth in droves.

In January 2020, Kimia Alizadeh, a Taekwondo master Iran's first and only female medal-winner in Olympic history, fled to Germany. She said she was tired of "forced veiling" and "giving in to political demands."

Top chess referee Shohreh Bayat opted to remain in the UK in January after photographs surfaced of her in a tournament in Shanghai without a headscarf on.

In the same month, top chess player Mitra Hejazipour was expelled from the Iranian team for removing her headscarf during a championship in Moscow. She has opted to remain in France and has since said her life and career in Iran were “dominated by hijab”.

Young athletes of all stripes have abandoned their birth country on similar grounds. Sadaf Khadem, the first Iranian female boxer to win an overseas fight, announced in April 2020 that she would be staying in France.

The judoka Olympian Saeed Molaei has arguably been the most high-profile athlete to recently take flight from Iran. He was similarly vexed by the regime’s insistence that he could not fight an Israeli opponent: to the point of ordering him to intentionally lose a fight in 2019, which saw Iran banned from competing by the International Judo Federation. In August Molaei moved to Europe on a two-year visa from Germany, and this January travelled to Israel to compete at the Tel Aviv Grand Prix.

The decision by teenage chess prodigy Alireza Firouzja last December was particularly painful for Iran. Alireza was just 14 in 2018 when he defeated the incumbent Iranian chess grandmaster, Ehsan Ghaem Maghami, and earned the acclaim of the International Chess Federation. By the age of 16, he had topped the World Chess and Under-16 Championships and ranked second in the World Youth Chess Championship.

But when Iran withdrew its players from the 2019 World Rapid and Blitz Championship, again to uphold its ban against Iranians playing against Israelis, its teenage star said he would no longer play under the Iranian flag, but remain in France instead. In Alireza Iran not only lost a compatriot and asset, but potentially many years of world-renown earned through his name and talent.

There are early signs that the regime is starting to recognize the sporting atrophy it has inflicted on itself. Dr. Mohammad Dadkan, a former president of the Iranian Football Federation, is currently facing a complaint from Iran’s National Olympic Committee because of speaking about the suspension of Iranian football on global pitches.

He stated on June 8 this year: "I am grateful to all journalists and athletes. And I defend the national team players who left Iran. All of this was due to the disrespect shown to them in this country."

Ghazal Hakimifard has now become the latest a litany of promising young Iranians to leave the country. The chess champion was born in 1994 and at the age of just 13 received the honorary title Master of Women from FIDE, the international chess feeration.

In 2010, when Hakimifard was 15, she came seventh place in the World Under-16 Women's Chess Championship in Halkidiki, Greece, and soon after became a regular member of the Iranian women's national chess team.

The Hamshahri Online website confirmed news of Hakimifard's departure, claiming she had accepted Swiss citizenship. The reason for the recent mass emigration of Iranian chess players, it claimed, was the "federation's disorder".

The Iranian Chess Federation has been operating under a government supervisor for months, and the Ministry of Sports and Youth has significant influence over its decisions. The ministry has blocked both individual players and the Iranian national team from traveling abroad, and canceled some domestic tournaments.

In February 2020 the ministry also ordered all sports federations, and most especially the Chess Federation, to "monitor the Israeli athletes" and to prevent Iranian athletes from attending competitions where Israeli athletes would be present.

This was, in fact, a radical about-turn in public policy that was not reported on by Iranian domestic media. Last January, Iranian sports minister Massoud Soltanifar, Iran’s sports minister, and Iran’s National Olympic Committee chair Reza Salehi Amiri, met with Thomas Bach, Chairman of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) during a visit to Lausanne, Switzerland. There, they gave a commitment they gave to the IOC that their players would be permitted to compete against Israeli athletes.

The pledge was made so that Iranian sports not be suspended from the global stage. But internally, Iran continued to block its athletes from competitions it had outwardly claimed they could now attend.

In December 2019, the sports ministry ordered the Chess Federation to block Iranian national team players from attending Russia's World Championships. The reason for the forced withdrawal was the scheduled competition between Iranians Amin Tabatabai and Parham Maghsoudlou with an Israeli rival.

Ghazal Hakimifard will now continue to compete in international competitions under the Swiss flag instead. Her younger sister Rana Hakimifard is also a chess master and remains in Iran – for now.

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