How a rebel Iranian refugee and being 'trapped in fear mode' ended Jade Jones' Olympics dream

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Kimia Alizadeh Zonoozi: How a rebel Iranian refugee and being 'trapped in fear mode' ended Jade Jones' Olympics dream - PA
Kimia Alizadeh Zonoozi: How a rebel Iranian refugee and being 'trapped in fear mode' ended Jade Jones' Olympics dream - PA

Looking tearful and bereft, Jade Jones acknowledged she had been “trapped in fear mode” as her campaign for a third Olympic gold unravelled at the first hurdle.

Beaten by the extraordinary Kimia Alizadeh, a former Iranian athlete now competing under the white flag of the refugee team, the 28-year-old described how she had been overwhelmed by a desperation to become the first taekwondo fighter to win three titles on this stage. “I put too much pressure on myself,” she said. “Coming out, I felt scared.”

The absence of Jones’ family in the stands was, she argued, a crucial factor in why she fell so far short of expectations. It was her grandfather who had first introduced her to the martial art, determined to find her a different pathway after she was caught smoking at the age of 10.

“He still has his proud smile on,” she reflected here at a deserted conference hall in Chiba, 35 miles east of downtown Tokyo. “Champions adapt, and it’s my fault for not adapting. But the empty stadium is sad.

“This room is gorgeous, and it would have been perfect with my family here. Speaking to them made me more upset – they were still proud of me, which killed me more.”

It was the gold for which Jones had come. Ever since she took the ultimate prize at London 2012, ensuring her a golden postbox in her hometown of Flint, north Wales, it has been the only colour that matters to her.

Alizadeh recovered from 6-4 down to beat the two-time defending champion - PA
Alizadeh recovered from 6-4 down to beat the two-time defending champion - PA

“Anything less than a gold is a fail to me,” she declared, having harvested every major honour that her sport has to offer. She and Bianca Walkden, her housemate and fellow Olympic medallist, had converted their garage into a gym while Manchester’s National Taekwondo Centre was closed during lockdown.

And yet when the moment finally arrived, inspiration eluded her. “I felt too much pressure,” she admitted.

“This whole tournament has been so different to what I’m used to. Usually, I have my whole family here, so if I am scared when I come out, it gives me that extra push to go for it. But I got trapped in that fear mode.”

For weeks, showing a streak of self-preservation verging on paranoia, Jones had rubbed her skin raw with hand gel, petrified that a positive Covid test would derail her pursuit of a third Olympic gold. And then, in a matter of minutes, it was all over. While she had successfully kept the virus at bay, she was powerless to resist the skill of Alizadeh.

A despondent Jones reacts after her defeat - GETTY IMAGES
A despondent Jones reacts after her defeat - GETTY IMAGES

With her bout level at 10-10 with 30 seconds left, Jones knew she had to produce a decisive flourish. Instead, it was Alizadeh who applied the coup de grace, scoring a pair of two-point body kicks and clinging on for victory by four. Jones departed the floor in silence, as Walkden dissolved in tears.

Not that Jones’ supporters will care to be reminded of it just yet, but Alizadeh’s is an astonishing story. Her draw also pitted her against an opponent from Iran, the country from which she dramatically defected last year.

In an Instagram post announcing that decision, she had savaged the Iranian government for the oppression of women. The words appeared beneath a black-and-white photo of herself, head in her hands, wearing a taekwondo uniform.

This time Alizadeh strode into battle every inch the confident young woman, wearing her hair loose and raising her fist defiantly to the cameras. If ever there was an image of a fighter hell-bent on springing an upset, here it was. No wonder Jones seemed as if she did not know what had hit her.

Unfinished business for Walkden

By Tom Cary, Senior Sports Correspondent, in Tokyo

It was almost more shocking than Jade Jones actually losing. The sight of Bianca Walkden bawling her eyes out, live on television, as her teammate’s hopes of a third successive taekwondo gold were dashed the first round of the -57kg category, truly brought home what a seismic result Jones’ defeat was.

While Jones simply looked stunned by defeat to Iranian refugee Kimia Alizadeh Zonoozi, turning and removing her head guard as if in a trance, Walkden, standing to the side of the mat, could not contain her emotions. She was completely devastated.

Anyone who has followed their story over the years would understand why. These two are more than just teammates. They are housemates. Best mates. Alongside Aaron Cook, the GB-turned-Moldovan fighter who is Walkden’s partner, the three of them live together in Manchester. They train together, eat together, suffer the highs and lows of elite sport together.

“Honestly, we’re so, so close,” says Walkden of their relationship. “I couldn’t have asked for better friends or training partners. 100 per cent we’re in this journey together.”

Hence why she was so upset. Walkden had already suffered heartache once this year, when Cook’s long and winding battle to achieve Olympic glory, which first began to veer off track when he was controversially left out of the GB team for the 2012 Olympics in London despite being ranked No 1 in the world in the -80 kg division, finally came to an end at a qualifying tournament in Bulgaria in May. Walkden describes the experience as “soul-destroying”.

“I was actually at the competition with him,” she says. “I helped him warm up, everything. We did everything to give him that last chance and it was just unfortunate it didn’t happen on the day…”

Jones (left) and Bianca Walkden (right) watch Bradly Sinden win taekwondo silver - PA
Jones (left) and Bianca Walkden (right) watch Bradly Sinden win taekwondo silver - PA

Cook may not have qualified for these Games, but he is still out in Tokyo. As her official sparring partner, the 30 year-old is allowed to train and support her as she prepares for her first round match in the +67kg category on Tuesday. Learning that he would be allowed to accompany her to Tokyo was a huge moment.

“I wouldn’t be the athlete I am today without Aaron,” says the Liverpudlian, who is aiming to upgrade her bronze from Rio to gold in Tokyo. “He’s a legend of the sport. I don’t think he gets nearly enough credit. What he's done for the sport, the kids that look up to him.

“I remember when I started out, Aaron was flying miles ahead of everyone all the time, knocking everyone out. I wanted to be like that. I wanted that passion.

“I was lucky enough to become his girlfriend when I was quite young and, like, we've been on this journey together, through thick and thin. We train together day-in-day-out and he helps me so much. He's still trying to batter me now, still trying to push me to be the best I can be.”

Walkden is not joking when she says they train together. Jones too. At 76kgs she may weigh a good 12kgs less than Cook and a good 15kgs more than Jones. But she says there is no quarter asked or given when they face off, with house disputes frequently settled on the mat. “Basically for me and Aaron it’s like marriage counsel and then for me and Jade it’s like: ‘If you don’t do the dishes we’re having a scrap!’”

Walkden frequently joked before these Games that it was high time she regained the bragging rights in the Walkden-Jones household, with Jones’ two gold medals a constant and painful reminder that she did not achieve her goal in Rio.

“I got bronze in the end which in hindsight was good but you should have seen me backstage,” she recalls. “I proper threw my toys out the pram after losing my semi-final. I set the bar so high for myself. That’s what we’re like. It’s all or nothing most of the time. In the gym or in competition.”

Now, out of the trio, she is the last one standing. The hope is that she has fully recovered her composure and her focus by the time she suits up on Tuesday.

An exciting future awaits. She and Cook plan to open a taekwondo club together in Manchester in September. “We want to get more kids into the sport,” she says. She also wants to be the first female taekwondo player to win four successive world titles when the championships take place this autumn.

But first she has some unfinished business to attend to, on behalf not just of herself but her two housemates.

“All the highs and lows we’ve been through together,” she reflects, “the journey we’ve been on, the injuries. I’ve had two ACL reconstructions. I sometimes wonder how I’m still going… But all those ups and downs made me much more mentally resilient. Sometimes I wonder, if I hadn’t have had them, would I be the athlete I am now?

“I need to put all that into my performance now. I’ve got to come away with that gold medal.” She smiles. “That would be boss.”

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