Iran's only female Olympic medalist appears to defect, criticizes regime

“They put my medals on the obligatory veil and attributed it to their management and tact," Kimia Alizadeh wrote on Instagram.
Image: FILES-OLY-2016-RIO-IRI-TAEKWONDO
Kimia Alizadeh shows her Olympic bronze after her arrival in Tehran from the Rio games. PEYMAN / AFP - Getty Images

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By Yuliya Talmazan

The only woman ever to win an Olympic medal for Iran appears to have defected from her homeland, citing oppression at the hands of the Middle Eastern county's regime.

Kimia Alizadeh, 21, became a national hero when she won a bronze medal for taekwondo at the 2016 Rio games in Brazil.

But in an Instagram post on Saturday, she launched a scathing attack on the "hypocrisy" of the Iran's administration and appeared to imply that she had permanently left the country. It is unclear when.

Calling herself “one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran,” she claimed that those in charge had always taken credit for her success.

“They put my medals on the obligatory veil and attributed it to their management and tact,” Alizadeh wrote to her 370,000 followers.

Kimia Alizadeh is greeted by Iranians upon her arrival at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran after winning an Olympic bronze medal in August 2016.PEYMAN / AFP - Getty Images

"Whatever they said I wore. Every sentence they ordered I repeated," she said.

“My troubled spirit does not fit into your dirty economic channels and tight political lobbies,” she added. “I have no other wish except for taekwondo, security and a happy and healthy life.”

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Although she did not disclose her whereabouts or where she intended to live, Alizadeh made it clear that she had not been invited to Europe.

Some Iranian media reports suggested last week that she might seek refuge in the Netherlands, but Alizadeh said she had not "been given a tempting offer."

She added: "I accept the pain and hardship of homesickness because I didn't want to be part of hypocrisy, lies, injustice and flattery. This decision is even harder to win than the Olympic gold, but I remain the daughter of Iran wherever I am."

It is unclear whether she intends to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in July under another nation’s flag.

She won her medal in the 57kg category in Rio, wearing a traditional head scarf along with her taekwondo uniform and protective gear, receiving nationwide praise for her effort.

“My daughter, Kimia, you made all Iranians, especially women of your nation this happy. I wish everlasting happiness for you," President Hassan Rouhani tweeted at the time.

Alizadeh said the Islamic Republic's authorities had attributed her success to their management and the fact that she wore the Islamic veil, which is obligatory in Iran.

Mahin Farhadizadeh, a deputy Iranian sports minister, told the the semi-official ISNA news agency "that he had not read her post, but as far as I know she always wanted to continue her studies in physiotherapy."

NBC News has reached out to Iran’s Olympic Committee, the International Olympic Committee and World Taekwondo Federation for comment.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus tweeted that Alizadeh "defected for a life of security, happiness and freedom."

She added that "Iran will continue to lose more strong women unless it learns to empower and support them."

Alizadeh is the third top Iranian sports person to stop representing the country in recent months.

In December, Iran's Chess Federation said top-rated chess champion Alireza Firouzja had decided not to play for Iran over its informal ban on competing against Israeli players.

Three months earlier, the International Judo Federation said Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei had refused to return home over fears for his safety after he ignored orders from his national federation to pull out of fights to avoid a potential final meeting with an Israeli opponent.

Alizadeh’s post came amid growing turmoil inside Iran as protesters demanded Saturday that the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, step down after the government said its military had by mistake shot down a Ukrainian plane Wednesday, killing all 176 people on board.

The incident happened shortly after Iran retaliated for a U.S. drone strike that killed of one of its top generals by firing a series of ballistic missiles at two Iraqi air bases housing U.S. forces.

Reuters contributed.