By Donna Rachel Edmunds, World Israel News
An Iranian champion powerlifter has defected in Oslo after Iranian officials tried to force him to show allegiance to the regime by wearing a t-shirt bearing a picture of assassinated military leader Qassem Soleimani.
Amir Assadollahzadeh, 31, is a decorated athlete with 18 years of competition under his belt, including 11 with the Iranian national team. In early 2021 he took bronze at the World Club League Championship, and decided to dedicate his medal to the healthcare professionals treating COVID in Iran. It was a decision that was to change his life.
Rather than welcoming the gesture, Iranian officials questioned why he hadn’t dedicated the medal to Soleimani, who hailed from the same province of Iran as Assadollahzadeh. A former commander of the Quds Force – a branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps dedicated to overseas and clandestine military operations – Soleimani was killed in January 2020 by a US drone strike near Baghdad airport.
Things came to a head at the IPF World Powerlifting Championships in November, held in Norway, when officials informed Assadollahzadeh that his action had been seen as a snub to Soleimani. Assadollahzadeh told CNN that the vice president of the federation, who was with the Iranian team, told him that he would have to redeem himself by wearing a t-shirt featuring Soleimani in the competition arena.
“I refused to wear the shirt and I was confronted with threats,” Assadollahzadeh told CNN. He was told, “If you refuse to wear the shirt, upon your return to Iran, both you and your family will face problems, and you will be treated like someone who is against the regime and someone who has refused to work with us. Your life may also be in danger.”
He tried to explain to his seniors that it was against competition rules to wear images or logos while competing, and that doing so would get him expelled from the competition.
The following day he was again confronted by the team manager and a security official, and was told “You will either wear the T-shirt on the stage, so that we can take pictures and videos and send them to Iran, or we will definitely take legal action against you upon your return to Iran.”
The pressure caused him to turn in a performance so poor that even following his defection, he was still bothered by it. That night, he resolved to flee the hotel in Stavanger and seek asylum.
At around 3.30 am, “I took what I needed for my journey and left,” Assadollahzadeh recalled. “I quickly ran towards the bus station, but I arrived five minutes too late. It was very dark, and I was very stressed.” Feeling exposed, he decided to run. “I had no choice,” he explained, “I tried to run the street directly in front of the hotel at full speed until I finally reached a gas station with a store right next to it. I asked the man working there to get me a taxi.”
From Stavanger he headed by taxi to a neighboring town, and there waited for a bus to Oslo. “I was very stressed and very worried that they might find me,” he said, “At one of the stops, I got off the bus and threw my phone in the water.”
Upon completing the 200 mile journey to the Norwegian capital, Assadollahzadeh was horrified to spot a team-mate at the train station in Oslo. Fearing pursuit he again ran. “It was then that I ran for three kilometers in the middle of the cold night and escaped.”
Should he be forced to return to Iran, “I am 100% sure that I will face jail, torture and maybe even worse than that — execution,” he told CNN.
Explaining his decision, he said: “In these years that I have been an athlete I never had the intention to get involved in political issues, because I am an athlete and I have spent years of my life so that I can bring honor to myself, my people and my country.”
Assadollahzadeh is not the only Iranian athlete to have defected in recent years. In 2018, water polo player Amir Dehdari was tortured and flogged for refusing to meet with the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. He is now living in exile in Belgium. And in October, boxer Omid Ahmadi Safa failed to attend the World Kickboxing championship final in Italy, instead also fleeing his hotel to seek asylum in Europe.
In 2020, there was an international outcry when Iran executed wrestler Navid Afkari after he was found guilty of murder. His advocates dispute the verdict, arguing that he was executed for protesting the regime. Pressure has been brought on the International Olympic Committee to intervene. In response the IOC has stated that it is in “regular contact with the National Olympic Committee (NOC) of Iran on this matter,” and has been assured Iran is “committed to fully complying with the Olympic Charter.”
In the meantime, Assadollahzadeh is facing an uncertain future, unsure whether he will ever see his wife and family again.
“The Islamic Republic regime is forcefully trying to get the athletes involved in politics,” he told CNN. “I ask the International Olympic Committee and all related organizations to help Iranian athletes and not be okay with these athletes being forced to stay away from their country, their home, just because they are faced with no other choice but to leave.
“I am very, very, very unhappy at the fact that I may never see my family again. It is very painful for me. It is very difficult for me to put it in words.