TOKYO – There was quite a taekwondo match here Sunday: Kimia Alizadeh against the lie she used to live.
Five years ago, at age 18, Alizadeh became the first woman to win an Olympic medal for Iran in any sport—a bronze. She said then that she was “very pleased for the girls of Iran.” She told the Olympic publication Inside the Games, “Surely all the public in Iran are very pleased and happy to see my achievement. There is no restriction for female activities in [Iranian] sport and I hope from now on there will be lots of medals to follow.”
Well, what else was she supposed to say? The Olympic playbook for oppressive regimes is well-known but still effective. Successful athletes get special treatment, but in exchange for presenting a polished and false view of life in their home country. All the while, they know that the government can take away their new life whenever it wants. They start as athletes and wind up as propaganda tools.
In January 2020, Alizadeh decided she was done being a propaganda tool. She decided to defect for Germany and compete for the Germans. But Olympians are not like baseball free agents. They cannot just pick a new team. The process is a lot more complicated than that. If the Olympics had been held in 2020, Alizadeh would have missed them.
The one-year COVID-19 Olympics delay bought her time. This year, she was able to join the refugee team.
And when she showed up here, who was her first opponent?
Nahid Kiyani Chandeh, competing for Iran.
Alizadeh walked in to the Makuhari Messe Event Hall looking like a hundred other athletes before a thousand other events. AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” played on the speakers. She pumped her fist. It was still not entirely clear that there would be a match at all. There seemed to be a real possibility that Iran would force Chandeh to disqualify herself.
Iran does not view the Olympics like almost every other country does, as a chance for the best athletes in the world to compete against their equals, regardless of politics. In 2004, Iranian judo star Arash Miresmaeili arrived in Athens with gold-medal hopes, but then the draw was released and he was scheduled to face Israel's Ehud Vaks. Iran does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and bars its athletes from competing against Israelis. Miresmaeili withdrew from the Olympics, claiming that he weighed too much. Today he is the President of the Iranian Judo Federation.
This time, Iran let Chandeh compete. This was surely not an act of goodwill or forgiveness. Five years ago, the Iranian government hailed Kimia Alizadeh as a hero. Now the Iranian government wanted her to lose.
When she left Iran, Alizadeh wrote on Instagram that she was not a hero. She was a person choosing to pursue a better life.
“Shall I start with hello, with goodbye, or condolences?” Alizadeh wrote on Instagram last year. “Hello oppressed people of Iran, goodbye to the decent people of Iran, condolences to you always bereaved people of Iran. How (well) do you know me?”
She wrote of the restrictive attitude toward women, of the “corruption and lies” that were an unavoidable part of competing for Iran, of the “compulsory hijab” she had to wear. Now here she was, an Iranian living in Germany, competing as a refugee in Japan, trying to beat not just her opponent, but her past.
Steadily, she did it. The final was 18–9. Then she hugged Chandeh, and to call that the end of this story would be to miss the point entirely. Alizadeh did not leave Iran so she could win one taekwondo match. She also did not come here so she could win one taekwondo match. She wanted that gold medal.
In the round of 16, Alizadeh beat the top seed, Great Britain’s Jade Jones. Then she beat China’s Lijun Zhou. She was into the semifinal, two matches from being an Olympic champion, but then Russian Tatiana Minina beat her.
Alizadeh still had a chance to match her bronze medal from Rio. She shared that one with Iran. This one would be hers alone.
In the bronze-medal match Alizadeh led Turkey’s Hatice İlgün after the first round, trailed by a point after the second, and finally lost 8–6. She slowly walked over to a chair, sat and hung her head. Five years, one defection, many hours of training and untold fears and anxieties had brought her here. As she walked out, there was a towel over her head where the compulsory hijab used to be and she was bawling. She was so distraught that she declined to speak to reporters. It was her choice to make.
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