Canadian-based karate athlete Derafshipour named to Refugee Team for Tokyo Games

Hamoon Derafshipour's Olympic dreams began in Iran, then blossomed in Canada.

Now, the karate star will compete as a member of the Olympic Refugee Team at the Tokyo Games.

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And if he climbs the medal podium, Derafshipour says it will be bittersweet to see the Olympic flag go up for him.

"Of course, I'm so sad about it," Derafshipour said of not competing for Iran. "But I have a goal, and right now Canada is my country."

The 28-year-old and his wife Samira Malekipour, who's also his coach, left Iran in 2019 for Kitchener, Ont., as he has cousins in nearby Waterloo. In an interview, Derafshipour declined to talk about his reasons for leaving Iran over concern for family members who still live in the country.

Derafshipour was born in Kermanshah, near the Iran/Iraq border. Malekipour, who was the 2010 Asian Games bronze medallist, was coaching Iran's women's team when the two met. They married, and opened a karate academy in Iran in 2017.

The two came to Canada just before COVID-19 hit, making for a tough 15 months in Kitchener. While Derafshipour worked at Driftwood Martial Arts in Kitchener, the pandemic protocols meant the gym has been closed during Ontario's lockdowns. He's since worked for automotive company, and then raised money through a GoFundMe page for a six-week training camp in Istanbul, his current base.

"Canada is for newcomers, but we started life a little different . . . it was a hard, hard situation because of the COVID," he said. "But right now, we are going to Olympics, and we are happy, we are always telling ourselves, 'We are going to Tokyo to bring my medal back to home, Canada. We'll look at the Olympics like this."

If COVID-19 regulations allow athletes to march in the July 23 opening ceremonies, the Refugee Team will walk behind the Olympic flag. The team features athletes in 12 sports, from 13 host National Olympic Committees.

The 29 athletes were selected from a group of 55 potential athletes from 13 countries. Six team members also competed on the first Olympic Refugee Team at the 2016 Games in Rio.

The Canadian Olympic Committee is considered the host NOC for Derafshipour, and connected him with Karate Canada for training and support purposes, and helped guide him through his Visa application process.

To be selected for the Refugee Team, athletes must be recognized refugees or beneficiaries of international protection according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) agency, plus have proven high-level competition results in their sport.

Derafshipour, who won bronze at the 2018 world championships, said Malekipour is key to his success. They have lofty goals for Tokyo.

"All the time at home we're talking about sport, talking about karate, talking about Olympics, because I believe I was born to go to Olympics and (get) results," Derafshipour said. "I believe that, Samira knows that, I'm not excited to go only so we can say 'Oh, here is Olympics.'

"We want to go to go to the Olympics for results, for a medal."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2021.

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