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Iranian Battles Iranian Refugee At The Tokyo Olympics

Kimia Alizadeh (left) in action during her first-round victory over compatriot Nahid Kiyani in the taekwondo women's under-57-kilogram competition at the Tokyo Olympics. She eventually made it to the semifinal stage, just missing out on emulating her bronze-medal finish at the 2016 games when she became the first Iranian woman to win an Olympic medal.

It was a bittersweet moment for many Iranians.

Kimia Alizadeh, an Iranian taekwondo fighter, beat her opponent, also from Iran, at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Alizadeh, who emigrated to Europe in 2020 after criticizing the oppression of women in the Islamic republic, represented the Refugee Team while her opponent and former teammate, Nahid Kiayani, was fighting for their home country of Iran.

Women in Iran are forced to cover their hair and body and they also face discriminatory laws that deny them equal rights in divorce, inheritance, child custody, and other matters.

Female athletes competing outside the country have to observe the Islamic hijab, which became compulsory after the 1979 revolution that created an Islamic republic in Iran.

Alizadeh embraced Kiyani after defeating her on July 25. With her hair hanging loose, the athlete also walked over to hug the Iranian coach.

"I wore whatever they told me to wear. Every sentence they ordered me to say, I repeated. Whenever they saw fit, they exploited me," Alizadeh had said in an Instagram post in 2020 when she announced that she was permanently leaving the country.

"I am one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran with whom they have been playing for years," she said.

Many blamed the Islamic republic for creating divisions among Iranians and pitting the two 23-year-old women against each other while some said the unusual matchup between the two athletes from the same homeland was a lose-lose scenario for the country.

"This match does not have a winner," award-winning Iranian film director Mohammad Rasoulof said on Twitter, while journalist and political activist Mehdi Mahmudian said the face-off between the two athletes was "the result of actions by Iranian leaders who divide their country's people into believers and nonbelievers, revolutionary and nonrevolutionary."

"With or without you Iran will be for all Iranians very soon," Mahmudian tweeted.

'Child Of Iran'

The hard-line media accused Alizadeh of "betrayal" while a state-controlled television commentator who covered the match did not mention Alizadeh's name, drawing widespread outrage.

State television also did not air images of Alizadeh embracing Kiyani after their match, prompting many to post a video of the interaction on social media.

Many said that Alizadeh remained "a source of pride" and honor for the country while also highlighting that her first name had been embroidered with the three colors of the Iranian flag on her taekwondo training uniform.

Writing on her Instagram page on July 27, Alizadeh called herself a "child of Iran," while thanking her supporters, including "athletes, artists, veterans, and coaches who consider me one of them."

She also blasted Iranian state television's "immoral" coverage of the fight.

"The same men who have been the mouthpiece of the normalization of gender discrimination…. They don't consider the humiliation of their women at home enough and continue their misogyny [on] the so-called national broadcast," she wrote in an apparent reference to the TV commentator who did not name her.

Alizadeh praised "her dear friend Nahid Kiyani," who she said had been under intense pressure.

"I'm sure she will achieve great success," said Alizadeh, who won a bronze medal in taekwondo at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

For her part, Kiyani said she had never expected to have to fight a countrywoman and friend at the Olympics.

"I did not know that one day in the biggest milestone of my life, at the point I had been trying to reach for years, I was going to stand in front of my compatriot, a friend who is part of the memories of my sports career," Kiyani wrote on Instagram on July 27.

Alizadeh is not the only Iranian athlete who is not representing the Islamic republic at the Tokyo Olympics.

Saeed Mollaei, an Iranian defector representing Mongolia, won a silver medal in judo for his adopted country on July 27.

Mollaei left Iran two years ago after being ordered to deliberately lose at a World Cup tournament to avoid fighting an Israeli opponent in the final.

Iran does not recognize the state of Israel and Iranian athletes are reportedly often pressured to lose so they will not face Israeli opponents.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.