British taekwondo fighter approved to compete for Moldova

LONDON (AP) Top-ranked taekwondo fighter Aaron Cook can compete for Moldova in the Olympics and other international competitions after the British Olympic Association approved his request to switch nationalities.

Cook announced last month he had obtained a Moldovan passport and hoped to represent the eastern European country at next year's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He was overlooked for a spot on the British team for the 2012 London Olympics after leaving the national training academy despite being the No. 1 athlete in his 80-kilogram category.

In a statement issued on Thursday, the BOA said officials were ''saddened'' by Cook's decision, noting that he had ''a named place'' on the British team competing at the inaugural European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, in June. Still, Cook does not have a place on the British team fighting at next month's World Taekwondo Championships in Russia and is expected to represent Moldova.

''Despite the fact that there is no legitimate case for nationality change here, the BOA cannot compel any athlete to represent the United Kingdom against his or her will,'' the association said. ''As Aaron has now reiterated that he wishes to represent Moldova, rather than the country of his birth, at future taekwondo competitions, the BOA will not stand in his way.''

Cook, 24, has previously said he felt ''cheated'' after being denied a chance to compete at the London Olympics and that he was being punished for abandoning the British training system. He has not represented Britain since 2012 and has independently funded his own training since 2011. He is a three-time European taekwondo champion and has consistently beaten the British fighters in his division at major competitions.

In a Facebook post last month, Cook said he felt he had no other option but to change nationalities in his attempt to secure a place at the Rio Olympics. He said it was clear to him last year that British officials would not select him to compete at the Olympics despite his world No. 1 ranking. He had previously represented the Isle of Man before switching to Moldova.

''I am a fighter at heart and I am not going to throw away 20 years of dedication because of bureaucracy,'' Cook wrote.

He competed for Britain at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and narrowly missed out on a bronze medal.

Cook has reportedly received funding from a Moldovan billionaire, Igor Iuzefovici, president of Moldova's taekwondo federation.

''We have made exhaustive efforts to engage with him and his team for some time but sadly it seems that he has made the decision that his future lies elsewhere and we wish him well,'' GB Taekwondo chairman Jeremy Beard said.

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