Kimia Alizadeh, Iran’s 23-year-old “daughter-in-exile”, has achieved fourth place in the Tokyo Olympics in taekwondo as a refugee.
Five years ago in Rio, Alizadeh became the first Iranian woman to win a medal in the Olympic games. This time, not only was she not fighting under the Iranian flag, but she competed against – and defeated – her friend and her former teammate Nahid Kiani.
Alizadeh then defeated Britain’s Jade Jones, a two-time Olympic gold winner at the Rio and London games, and Chinese practitioner Zhou Lijun, a three-time winner at women’s international taekwondo competitions. But in the semifinals she lost to Tatiana Minina of the Russian Olympic Committee. She then lost the fight for bronze, 8-6, to Turkey’s Hatice Kübra İlgün, coming fourth overall.
When Kimia Alizadeh Left Iran
On January 20, just weeks after the killing of Ghassem Soleimani, the downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 by the Revolutionary Guards, and at a time when the streets of Iran still smelled of gunpowder and protesters’ blood, reports that Kimia Alizadeh had fled Iran and asked Germany for asylum climbed to the top of the news. The only Iranian female athlete to win an Olympic medal no longer wanted to flight fight under the Iranian flag.
Alizadeh initially gave her myriad reasons for the defection in an Instagram post. “I wore whatever they told me to,” she said. “I repeated whatever they told me to say. They sequestered me whenever they saw fit. They gave credit to compulsory hijab for my medals and praised their own management and wisdom.”
She went on to cite “discriminations” and “dirty money” as causes for her flight, adding that she no longer wanted to be part of a “system of suppression, corruption and lies.”
On January 24, 2020, the German Taekwondo Federation arranged a press conference for Alizadeh. The federation head opened the discussion by pointing out that this was nothing new – Germany had for decades welcomed athletes from abroad onto its national teams.
Alizadeh had previously competed while wearing a hijab, for which she had been praised by the Supreme Leader. She now spoke before the cameras unveiled, telling the reporters that she had taken this radical step so as to live a “peaceful” life while still competing as a martial artist at the Olympic level.
Censoring the Champion’s Name
The life Alizadeh wanted was out of step with the one that the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic had planned for Iranian female athletes.
On August 21, 2019, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had posted an image of Kimia Alizadeh on his Twitter page and written in English: "I wholeheartedly thank all [Iranian] women athletes who appear on the international scene with a veil."
Shortly after that, when the Iranian Olympic team returned to Tehran after engagements abroad, Khamenei again wrote: "To [Iranian] women athletes who took the honorable step of wearing the veil before others, and [particularly] to the brave lady who wore a full veil, I welcome home the pioneers of the nation’s sports, and coaches; I thank you all. We appreciate you."
Two sets of keywords were embedded in these posts; "Islamic veil,” repeated in both messages, and "We appreciate you.”
In the lexicon of the Islamic Republic, “appreciation” means financial reward. But it comes in exchange for a lifetime of adherence to the the Islamic Republic’s propaganda.
The fact that in neither missive did Khamenei mention Kimia Alizadeh, the first Iranian woman to win a medal in the Olympics, by name gives a clue as to the real status of women in the eyes of the Islamic Republic. He only praised her hijab – and, in his second message, said he “appreciated” the presence of an item of clothing that all Iranian female athletes are forced to wear.
“The Intelligent Iranian Girl”
Kimia Alizadeh was born in 1998 in Karaj, near Tehran. Her father Keyvan Alizadeh was born in Zonuz, a city in East Azerbaijan, while her mother was a native of Ardebil. Both cities are located in Iran’s greater Azerbaijan.
Twenty years ago, Keyvan Alizadeh migrated to Karaj and set up a workshop producing embroidered tablecloths, a business that enjoyed such success that today he outsources some of the work to smaller businesses.
When Kimia was seven years old, her mother took her to the nearest sports club — which just so happened to be a taekwondo gym – for women. Her mother later explained that they had only signed up Kimia to give her something to do outside of school. “We wanted her to move around a bit,” she said. “But her coach decided that her build was suitable for taekwondo and encouraged us to let her continue.”
The coach had been referring to Alizadeh’s height, which was unusual for a girl of her age. During puberty, she grew taller than her father. By the age of 14, when she hoped to participate in provincial competitions in the 57kg weight class, she was already 180 centimeters tall 180. She is now 186cm (6 ft 10) and competes in the 69kg weight class.
Taekwondo was not something Alizadeh dreamed about as a young girl, even though by the age of seven it was clear that she had what it took to excel at the sport. “I want to become an astronaut,” she wrote for an assignment in middle school. This wasn’t just wishful thinking; since childhood she had been captivated by math and physics. But becoming an astronaut was not on the cards.
Nine years after her mother first took her to the sports club to keep her occupied, Kimia Alizadeh won her first gong for Iran at an international competition. In 2014, she became the first Iranian female taekwondo champion at the World Taekwondo Federation’s Junior Championships. She then won a gold medal at the 2014 Summer Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China and another gold at the 2014 Guangzhou open games. And in 2014, she became world champion at the Antalya Open in Turkey. In the space of just one year, Kimia Alizadeh had become the world champion in three weight classes: 52, 59, and 63kg.
The 2015 World Taekwondo Federation described her as “The Intelligent Iranian Girl.” Others called her a genius, while she was still only 16. And in the same year, at the World Taekwondo Grand Prix in Moscow, Alizadeh became the first Iranian female taekwondo athlete to win a gold medal at the adult games.
Then, at 18, came the biggest challenge of her young life: the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. That year, Kimia Alizadeh and Zahra Nemati, a Paralympic and Olympic archer, were considered the most likely Iranian female athletes to bring home a medal.
Alizadeh won her first match against Croatian athlete Ana Zaninović and advanced to the quarter finals. But then she lost 7-8 to Spanish competitor Eva Calvo Gómez. Only after the Olympics was it revealed that Alizadeh had gone to Rio with a seriously injured cruciform ligament. But after this defeat, and while still suffering from the injury, she defeated Egyptian fighter Hedaya Malak and Thai competitor Phannapa Harnsujin in the makeup round. She then won 5-1 against Nikita Glasnović from Sweden, and so was awarded the Olympic bronze medal.
The Stumbling Block
Then came the day when Kimia Alizadeh came to know the pain of being alone, and of being dismissed while still at the top of one’s game.
After the Rio Olympics, she suffered an injury. A medical assessment revealed she had Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare condition in which immune system attacks the nerves. Symptoms can include muscle weakness, numbness, tingling, and even paralysis.
After this news surfaced, the Iranian Taekwondo Federation stated that it would be unlikely that Kimia Alizadeh would be able to take part in future championships due to her condition. It was assessed in the media that her future in the sport was at serious risk. But despite all the odds, she did return, and continued to compete on the Iranian national team.
Athletes as Propaganda Cannon Fodder
While Alizadeh was fighting injury and illness the government of the Islamic Republic was also trying to use her as a propaganda tool. After she returned from the Rio Olympics, the Sports Ministry chose her to give an address at a banquet thrown by President Rouhani to honor the country’s Olympic and Paralympic medallists.
“Since the nuclear treaty we have witnessed positive developments and improvements in people’s economic lives,” she told Rouhani in part of her speech. The text had been scripted for Alizadeh in advance. But nevertheless, this line made her the target of widespread criticism. She had been 16 before the JCPOA and now she was only 18, the line went, so how she could have had an understanding of the pre-JCPOA financial situation?
After Kimia Alizadeh emigrated, she cited this propagandistic exploitation of athletes by the Islamic Republic as one of the contributing factors to her decision to leave. She added that she did not want to be part of a “corrupt” system.
On February 10, 2021, the German government granted refugee status to Kimia Alizadeh. This by itself was not enough for her to qualify for the Olympics; only German nationals can compete under the German flag. Instead, though, after she was granted asylum, the International Olympic Committee brought her into the fold as a member of the official Refugee Olympic Team, sending her to Tokyo under the team’s own white flag.
In Tokyo, Kimia Alizadeh showed that her attachment to her homeland and its people, her family and friends remains strong. When she stepped onto the mat, the name on her belt appeared in the three colors of the Iranian flag: green, white and red.