Farzad Zolghadri, an Iranian tae kwon do fighter who moved to Bulgaria this month, says he wants to represent the Balkan country at this summer's Olympics in Tokyo, insisting that his decision has “nothing to do with politics.”
His switch of allegiance follows a decision by fellow tae kwon do competitor Kimia Alizadeh, Iran's only female Olympic medalist, to move to Germany. She complained of being used by Iranian officials as a propaganda tool.
Speaking on January 30 after a training session with the Bulgarian national team in Sofia, Zolghadri said he had made the move because his chances of getting to the Olympics are higher with Bulgaria than with Iran, where tae kwon do is “hugely popular.”
"I like Iran; this is my country," the 27-year-old Zolghadri told Reuters. "But the competition there is tough and I'll have much better chances to fulfill my dreams competing for Bulgaria."
Slavi Binev, who heads the Bulgarian Tae Kwon Do Federation, said moves were under way to enable the Iranian to compete in April's qualifiers in Milan.
Zolghadri won a silver medal at the 2015 World Cup in Mexico and a bronze medal at the Asian Championship in 2009. For many years, his father worked for the Iranian tae kwon do federation and was the head coach of the Iranian team.
Alizadeh, who won bronze at the Rio Olympics in 2016, announced her "permanent" defection via social media earlier this month, blaming the Iranian regime's "injustice" and "hypocrisy" for the way it exploits athletes as "tools" for political purposes.
She has told German media that she "would be happy to compete for Germany" at this year's Summer Olympics.
Zolghadri, who competes in the 80-kilogram category, did not comment on Alizadeh's motives.
"I would like to say that my move to Bulgaria has nothing to do with politics. I'm just a sportsman and came [to Bulgaria] because I want to be successful...I did it because tae kwon do is my life," he said.
Zolghadri posted a picture on Facebook from Tehran airport on January 17, saying it was the start of a "new season of life."
"The best and most important decision of my life, thank you for all your support, Bulgarian tae kwon do federation....Good things are coming," he wrote in a January 20 post next to his photo with a green Bulgarian tae kwon do team T-shirt at the sports training base of Belmeken.
Binev said that Zolghadri “will obtain Bulgarian citizenship soon, probably within two weeks."
“We really hope he'll qualify for the Olympics," he said, adding: "I think he could even win a medal for Bulgaria.