Tobias Hochstöger, MSc International Politics
Amid the current protests in Iran, the Islamic Republic is facing a wave of top athletes, who are defecting the country, due to its strict standards for athletes in international competitions.
Most recently, Taekwondo athlete Kimia Alizadeh, Iran’s first and sole female Olympic medal winner, announced on 12 Jan on her Instagram account, that she had defected to the Netherlands. She is being “one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran who they have been playing with for years.”, as she stated on Instagram and therefore “didn’t want to be part of hypocrisy, lies, injustice and flattery” anymore. After her historic win of bronze in Taekwondo, during the 2016 summer Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, she felt increasingly used by the Iranian officials as a propaganda tool.
Already earlier this year, Shohreh Bayat and Mitra Hejazipour, two prominent figures of Iranian chess, both clashed with Iranian authorities for violating the Islamic Republic’s dress code, when they reportedly were not wearing a hijab in competitions abroad. Bayat, the first and only female category A international arbiter within Asia, got criticized by the Iranian state media, when photographs from the Women’s World Chess Championship in Shanghai were published, where she appeared without a hijab. Hence, she revealed, that she will not return to Iran until her safety will be guaranteed, as she is afraid of consequences due to the row over her person. Hejazipour, female chess grandmaster, was suspended from the Iran Chess Federation for removing her Hijab during the Chess World Championships in Moscow last year. As a consequence, she announced, that she will move to France and compete henceforth in a private capacity.
Yet, not only sportswomen get affected by Iran’s strict policy for athletes. The country’s top-ranked male chess player, Alireza Firouzja, decided in the run-up of the Chess World Championships in Moscow in December 2019, that he will not play under the Iranian flag anymore. He explained his move with the consistent instruction by Iranian authorities to refuse to compete against Israeli players. Instead, Firouzja participated in the tournament with a licence of the International Chess Federation (FIDE). The World Championships finally saw him, as runner-up in the Rapid chess tournament, only placed behind winner Magnus Carlsen. Firouzja, who is currently residing in France, declared, that he might play under American or French flag in the future.
However, these cases marked only the most recent examples, in which prominent Iranian sports figures got in conflict with the country’s authorities.
In August 2019 judoka and then world champion, Saeid Mollaei, left to Germany after he was ordered by Iranian authorities to deliberately lose the semi-finals of the 2019 World Championship in Tokyo, in order to avoid a potential competition against the Israeli and later world champion Sagi Muki in the finals. As a response, Iran was suspended by the International Judo Federation (IJF) for an indefinite time, due to its refusal to compete with Israeli athletes. Mollaei later declared, he was instructed by Iranian officials and feared to return to the country. Since December 2019, when Mongolia granted him citizenship, Mollaei is continuing his career under Mongolian flag.
Kimia Alizadeh for her part has ultimately turned her back to the Iranian officials. She decided to move to Germany, where she will continue her career, as her Dutch coach Mimoun el Boujjoufi told Reuters.