Jade Jones came to these Olympic Games talking about making herself “a legend” by winning a third straight Taekwondo gold. In the event her pursuit of ultimacy was over in six minutes as Kimia Alizadeh of the IOC Refugee Team fought a brilliant bout to knock Jones out of the gold medal race and leave the British coaching team distraught in their arena seats.
Defeat at the first hurdle in the Makuhari Messe Hall is a serious blow to Team GB’s gold medal hopes, and another sign Tokyo 2020 may be a genuinely bumpy landing after the flag-waggling triumphalism of the last two Games. But take away the Union Flag filter and the real story is Alizadeh, whose defeat of the Olympic champion is a rare Olympic moment in its own right.
Rewind two hours and Alizadeh had walked out to the sounds of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck for a preliminary bout against Nahid Kiani of Iran - the nation Alizadeh had renounced last year.
Alizadeh grew up in Karaj, a city close Tehran, where her father made table cloths for a living. She took up Taekwondo aged seven in the local gym. Eleven years later she became Iran’s first female Olympic medallist at the Rio Games and returned to a grand state-sponsored welcome, with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei publicly congratulating “the brave lady who shone with a full hijab on the forehead”.
Fast forward three and half years to January 2020 and Alizadeh released a fierce and fearless statement in which she railed at the mandatory wearing of the hijab, spoke out against corruption and sexism and described herself as “one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran.”
Alizadeh sought refugee status in Germany. Last month she was invited on to the IOC refugee team, first introduced in 2016, and made up at these Games of 29 displaced athletes, including Cyrille Tchatchet, originally from Cameroon, who is now studying for a Mental Health Nursing degree at Middlesex University.
In a juicy narrative twist the first bout of Sunday’s programme pitted Alizadeh against her friend and former Iran national teammate, and ended with the most cinematic of outcomes as Alizadeh dominated the contest.
The most touching moment came at end when Alizadeh’s first act was to walk across and hug Kiani’s coach. It left Alizadeh with a swift turnaround for the last 16 meeting with Jones, by which time the spectator-free hall was buzzing, relatively speaking, with media, officials and team members.
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Jones, AKA “the Head Hunter” is a genuine star of this sport, with a glow of event glamour about her even in the ring walk and the pre-fight stretches. Early on she unfurled a couple of her trademark bravura head kicks to go 6-2 up.
But Jones shrank a little as the round wore on, missing her usual aggression, and later admitted that the pressure of the occasion got to her. Alizadeh, a tall, angular, elegant fighter, fought to a smart tactical plan, using her greater reach and fighting off the back foot.
Taekwondo is a 20th century codification of various traditional Korean Martial arts. Other fighting sports are more brutally effective - Taekwondo, with its brittle, sideways-on stance is down the pecking order in MMA fighting – but it makes for a clean, crisp Olympic three-rounder.
In the version the aim is essentially to kick your opponent in the head, ideally with a three-point spinning motion. This is Jones’ great skill, but Alizadeh kept her at bay, scoring fluently to the trunk. There was an agonising delay at 14-10 as a potential infringement was checked with time running out and Jones already looking hugely frustrated by impending defeat.
Alizadeh closed out her quarter final against Lijum Zhou of China with a sublime spinning head-kick in the final round to win 9-8. She collapsed, exhausted, on to her back at the end, and the semi-final against Tatiana Minina, a Russian independent, proved a step too far. A 10-3 defeat left Alizadeh with a bronze medal match to play and the chance of first medal for the Refugee Team and a significant moment of Olympic history.
But there was to be no fairytale ending. Alizadeh was beaten 8-6 in a scrappy bonze medal contest by Turkey’s Kubra Ilgun. Minutes later Anastasija Zolotic of the US went on to win gold, the first person not called Jade Jones to be Olympic Champion at this weight since Lim Su-Jeong in 2008.
For Jones the failure to even get close to the gold will come as a crushing blow after a five year wait. She has already spoken about competing in 2024, when she will be 31, but was understandably blank on this prospect afterwards. Either way, and for all the sadness here, her career remains undimmed, an emblem of the “medal machine” years in Britain, and a significant presence in the sport’s global history.