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Iran’s lone female Olympic medalist reportedly defects

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran’s only female Olympic medalist said she defected from the Islamic Republic in a blistering online letter that describes herself as “one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran.”

Taekwondo athlete and Rio bronze medalist Kimia Alizadeh posted the letter on Instagram after Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency said she had fled to the Netherlands. She criticized wearing the mandatory hijab headscarf and accused officials in Iran of sexism and mistreatment.

“Whatever they said, I wore,” Alizadeh wrote in the letter posted Saturday. “Every sentence they ordered, I repeated.”

She described the decision to leave Iran as difficult, but necessary.

There was no immediate reaction from Iranian authorities. ISNA said Alizadeh had been reported injured and unable to compete. Their report suggested Alizadeh may try to compete under another nation’s flag at the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo.

World Taekwondo said Friday it had not received communication from Alizadeh regarding a possible country switch.

In Rio, Alizadeh became the first Iranian woman to earn an Olympic medal. Iran’s men have won 68 medals.

“I am so happy for Iranian girls because it is the first medal, and I hope at the next Olympics we will get a gold,” she said then, according to Reuters.

Alizadeh also earned world championships medals in 2015 (bronze) and 2017 (silver), plus a 2014 Youth Olympic title.

Her defection comes amid unprecedentedly high tensions between Iran and the United States.

In recent years, many Iranian athletes have left their country, citing government pressure. In September, Saeed Mollaei, an Iranian judoka, left the country for Germany. He said Iranian officials had forced him to not compete with Israeli judoka.

Alireza Faghani, an Iranian international soccer referee, also left Iran for Australia last year.

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Paige McPherson is first U.S. Olympic taekwondo qualifier

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Paige McPherson became the first taekwondo athlete and the 30th overall to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team for Tokyo.

McPherson, a 2012 Olympic 67kg bronze medalist, qualified via her international ranking — sixth in her weight class — at the end of 2019. She was the only American ranked high enough to qualify via that route in any division.

The rest will vie for spots at a Pan American qualifier in March in Costa Rica.

McPherson, who was adopted at four days old and raised in Sturgis, S.D., earned her London bronze medal one year after debuting at the world championships and bowing out in the quarterfinals.

Since London, McPherson earned world silver and bronze medals, her first Grand Prix title and, this past year, a Grand Prix Final bronze.

In Rio, McPherson lost in the first round. The U.S. earned one taekwondo medal in Rio — Jackie Galloway‘s bronze — for its smallest output since it was added as a medal sport in 2000.

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Esther Kim, who gave her Olympic spot to best friend, dies at 40

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Esther Kim, a U.S. taekwondo athlete who gave up her Olympic spot to her injured best friend, died on Tuesday at age 40.

Kim had lost liver and kidney function and spent recent weeks hospitalized in an intensive-care unit, said Jake Stovall, a friend, former instructor and taekwondo athlete. Stovall set up a GoFundMe page to cover funeral expenses.

In May 2000, Kim forfeited the U.S. Olympic Trials flyweight final to Kay Poe, allowing her best friend to take the lone spot available on the Olympic team.

Poe, reportedly ranked No. 1 in the world at the time, dislocated her left kneecap in the previous round. The injury would have kept her from being competitive in the final.

“I was in a very unfair situation. How can you go out there and fight someone who can’t even stand up?” Kim said in 2000. “There was only one choice to be made, and that was just to forfeit and bow out.”

Poe and Kim were training partners, both coached by Kim’s dad, and friends for the previous decade growing up in Houston.

“I felt blessed, and at the same time, I almost felt, like, guilty,” Poe said in 2000. “I couldn’t express it any other way, but it just came out with my tears.”

The story spread among national media, from The New York Times to Sports Illustrated to Oprah Winfrey.

Then-IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch arranged for Kim to travel to Sydney, where taekwondo made its Olympic debut as a medal event. Kim watched from the stands as Poe competed and was upset in her opening match.

“She was really one of a kind larger than life kind of woman,” was posted on Poe’s public Facebook page on Tuesday, along with a photo of her with Kim.

This was one of the last times I got to see her.. She was really one of a kind larger than life kind of woman. Sending all my love to her mother and family…

Posted by Kay Poe Sheffield on Tuesday, December 10, 2019