Kimia Alizadeh clinched a taekwondo bronze medal at the Rio Olympics in 2016, drawing praise from her compatriots including the country’s President Hassan Rouhani and even conservatives in the Islamic republic.
In keeping with Iran’s strict Muslim custom, Alizadeh, then 18, competed wearing a headscarf over her taekwondo uniform and protective gear.
There were high hopes she would compete at the Tokyo Olympics later this year and bring home another medal, but it appears this is not to be.
The semi-official ISNA news agency on Thursday carried a report saying: “Shock for Iran’s Taekwondo. Kimia Alizadeh has emigrated to The Netherlands.”
According to ISNA, the coach of the women’s national team said that Alizadeh is suffering from an injury.
It said Alizadeh did not show up for trials ahead of the Tokyo Games.
Isna and several other media believe that Alizadeh, who is reportedly training in The Netherlands, is hoping to compete in Tokyo but not under the Iranian flag.
A poor quality picture posted on the internet, and showing a woman who is believed to be Alizadeh without a headscarf and mixing with a group of young men and women, has sparked tens of thousands of comments.
And the hashtag #Kimia_Alizadeh was one of the most-shared Thursday on Twitter in Farsi.
Tansin news agency, which is close to ultra-conservative groups, questioned why the taekwondo federation and Alizadeh’s family “have not yet reacted to confirm or deny the stunning development” of her defection.
Iranian MP Abdolkarim Hosseinzadeh, meanwhile, demanded answers, accusing those he described as the “incompetent officials” of allowing Iran’s “human capital to flee” the country.
He drew a comparison between Alizadeh and Iranian chess prodigy Alireza Firouzja who won the grandmaster title at age 14, two years after winning the Iranian chess championship, and who now lives in France.
If Alizadeh fails to represent Iran at the Tokyo Olympics it would be a huge blow for the Islamic republic.
Along with judo, taekwondo is one of Iran’s sporting strengths.
Last year, the International Judo Federation suspended Iran from international competition over its refusal to allow its fighters to face judokas from Israel which the Islamic republic does not recognise.