This weekend, in one of the most important contests of her career, Iranian taekwondo athlete Kimia Alizadeh beat rival, friend and former teammate Iranian Nahid Kiani at the Tokyo Olympics, scoring 18-9 to come in fourth place overall.
Alizadeh once competed for Iran. But this year in Tokyo, she’s part a group of 25 athletes the International Olympic Committee has gathered under the banner of the official Olympic Refugee Team.
Along with Alizadeh, taekwondo athlete Dina Pour-Younes Langeroudi, judoka Javad Mahjoub, karateka Hamoon Darfshipour and rower Saeed Fazlola make up the five Iranian asylum seekers present on the squad.
In recent years, Iranian researchershave conducted at least four major studies on athlete migration. So what do the studies reveal? Why do Iranian athletes abandon their country of birth and compete under the flags of different nations, or choose instead to represent the growing number of “refugee athletes”?
The lives and movements of Iranian athletes routinely make headlines at home. Their talent and determination regularly extends beyond the track, field, mat or pool, and has helped them deal with the unique challenges that come with being sportspeople in the Islamic Republic: the ban on competing with Israelis, the never-ending politics, the lack of support, and the financial difficulties. These issues have also led many of them to make the difficult decision to leave.
Iranian officials admit that at least 38 athletes have emigrated in the last 20 years. The largest number seems to be from the martial arts world: seven judokas, including Saeed Molaei, are known to have emigrated. In addition, at least five taekwondo athletes, five boaters, four gymnasts and three chess players, have decided that life in another country would be better for their sporting careers and/or personal lives.
Many have gone on to compete for other countries, sparking angry criticism from Iranian officials — an anger that has reared its head again in the first few days of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Regime supporters carried out coordinated attacks against Kimia Alizadeh, without mentioning why she and other Iranians on the refugee team had felt they had no choice but to leave.
But outside the pro-Islamic Republic bubble, this group of outliers have gained enormous support from the wider public. People have recognized the intense political and pressure they face, as well as their right to pursue their sporting aspirations free of restrictions, discrimination and harassment.
Politics, a Lack of Investment and Poor Management in Iranian Sports
Two studies by the Iranian Parliamentary Research Center, both published in 2020, looked at the growing trend of athlete migration and its political, economic and cultural roots. Both studies, the first of which was entitled Analysis of Athlete Migration and Effective Solutions and released in May 2020, attempted to analyse the trend. But they also voiced opinion, suggesting that some of these athletes deserved to be stripped of their Iranian citizenship, and accusing managers and sports officials of not doing enough to keep them under control.
As part of this, the Parliamentary Research Center’s reports pointed the finger at opposition groups, especially the People's Mujahideen Organization (MEK), claiming that some athletes had been “lured” out of the country by political thinking at odds with that of the Islamic Republic.
Iranian Sports Plagued by Incompetence and Failing Infrastructure
"Athletes migrate because of bad management, and for economic reasons: sporting authorities and officials are largely indifferent to the livelihood of athletes, and clubs don’t provide comprehensive insurance or welfare,” the first report states.
“Iran also lacks sound, professional or even competent leagues for the Olympic sports,” it added, stating that Iranian sport is plagued by failing and largely absent sports infrastructure and “extremely limited facilities and equipment, ongoing disagreements and clashes between athletes and federation officials or other staff.”
The second study, published in the quarterly journal Organizational Behavior Management Studies in Sports and entitled Identifying the Factors Affecting the Migration of Iran's Elite Athletes, similarly noted a "lack of economic security” even after athletes had reached champion status. That report also highlighted “a concentration of budget and wages in specific sports” – it didn’t specify which ones – and the fact of other countries offering brighter income prospects. These factors, it said, all contributed to athletes wanting to leave.
Under Iranian law, the second study explains, athletes are entitled to social benefits. But in reality not only does this compensation rarely if ever materialize, but athletes are not rewarded with the social status they feel they deserve. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the report also highlights the issue of gender discrimination.
No Power to Speak or Act Freely
Athletes and managers interviewed for the Behavioral Management Studies report said the challenges athletes face are often simply ignored. Add to that Iranian leaders with little or no knowledge of sport and a rising number of officials without relevant background or expertise being put in charge of Iran’s sports federations and leagues, and Iranian athletes feel desperate to go somewhere else. Some even said they felt “used” by those in charge of Iranian sports.
The journal also reported that athletes felt themselves to be under increasing restrictions: whether in expressing themselves, being able to call officials out when they made mistakes, traveling outside Iran to compete, or dealing with the ban on competing with Israelis. For them, politics and sport have always been closely intertwined.
Prior to this, research published in 2019 by Human Resource Management in Sports, a journal affiliated with Shahroud University, drew the same conclusions. It split the reasons athletes leave the country into four broad categories: economic, political, professional and social, with financing and a lack of infrastructure and facilities being a key concern. The journal affirmed that Iran’s federations were “chaotic and inefficient”, and agreed athletes were undervalued compared to in other countries.
Four studies in a matter of 18 months have pointed out what Iranian athletes have known for years, decades even: that taking part in international competitions is stained by political meddling and controversy. Worse, perhaps, is the sense that they are undervalued despite what they might potentially add to Iran’s reputation on the world stage.