SOFIA (Reuters) - Iranian taekwondo competitor Farzad Zolghadri said on Thursday he intends to represent Bulgaria at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, adding his move has nothing to do with politics and is motivated purely by improving his chances of success.
Zolghadri’s switch of allegiance to the Balkan country follows a decision by fellow taekwondo competitor Kimia Alizadeh, Iran’s only female Olympic medalist, who won bronze at the Rio 2016 Olympics, to move to Germany last week.
Alizadeh said she had had enough of being used by Iranian authorities as a propaganda tool.
Zolghadri, 27, stressed his chances of getting to the Olympics are higher with Bulgaria than with Iran due to less competition, which is why he made the move.
“I like Iran, this is my country,” Zolghadri, 27, told Reuters after a training session with the Bulgarian national taekwondo team in Sofia. “But the competition there is tough and I’ll have much better chances to fulfill my dreams competing for Bulgaria.”
“Taekwondo is hugely popular in Iran, there are one million taekwondo competitors there and it’s really difficult,” added Zolghadri, who won a silver medal at the 2015 World Cup in Mexico and a bronze medal at the Asian Championship in 2009.
His move has caused some surprise in Iran, as Zolghadri’s father worked for the Iranian taekwondo federation for nearly 30 years, and was the head coach of the Iranian team for more than a decade before coming a technical director.
Zolghadri said he had the support of his family who remained in Iran.
Slavi Binev, the head of the Bulgarian federation, said that he had reached an agreement with the Iranian federation about Zolghadri’s move.
“He will obtain Bulgarian citizenship soon, probably within two weeks and we really hope he’ll qualify for the Olympics,” Binev said. “I think he could even win a medal for Bulgaria.
“He’s not only a top-class competitor who will make our team stronger. He’s a great man and a very disciplined athlete and this will raise the level of the trainings.”
The Iranian Taekwondo Federation was not available for comment.
Zolghadri, who competes in the 80kg category, will take part in tournaments in Slovenia, Germany, Bulgaria and Belgium as part of his preparation for the Olympic’s European qualification event in Milan in April.
Zolghadri said he respects Alizadeh’s decision to leave her homeland but added he had no idea about her motives.
“It’s her choice,” he said. “I don’t know why she decided to leave. She was very popular in Iran and the Iranian government supported her.
“I would like to say that my move to Bulgaria has nothing to do with politics. I’m just a sportsman and came here because I want to be successful. I would say this is the most important decision I’ve ever made. I did it because taekwondo is my life.”
Asked why he chose Bulgaria, he said he had visited many countries in Europe but Bulgaria seemed perfect for him.
Taekwondo, loosely translated as “way of the fist and foot”, enjoyed a surge in popularity after being exhibited as a demonstration sport at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and quickly rose to become one of the world’s most practiced martial arts.
In Tokyo, 128 taekwondo fighters will compete in eight weight categories - four for men, and four for women.
Alizadeh is one of several prominent Iranians to clash with the authorities in recent months.
In December, Iran’s top-rated chess champion decided not to play for his country in an apparent reaction to Tehran’s informal ban on competing against Israeli players.
Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai; Editing by Alexandra Hudson