Kimia Alizadeh ended Jade Jones' hopes of a third successive Olympic gold
For weeks, showing a streak of self-preservation verging on paranoia, Jade 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 the 28-year-old successfully kept the virus at bay, she was powerless to resist the extraordinary skill of Kimia Alizadeh, a former Iranian athlete now competing under the white flag of the refugee team. In her desperation to become the first taekwondo fighter to call herself a three-time champion on this stage, she looked blank, bereft even, as her campaign unravelled at the first hurdle.
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.
Astonished yelps broke out among the small knot of Olympians in the stands of the Makuhari Messe convention centre, while she ran off to celebrate with her coach. Jones could only depart the floor in silence, as Bianca Walkden, her friend, housemate and fellow Olympic medallist, dissolved in tears.
While Jones still has the chance to fight for bronze later on Sunday, it was the gold for which she came. 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. “Anything less than a gold is a fail to me,” she admitted, in the thick of her training for Tokyo, having harvested every major honour that her martial art has to offer.
She freely admitted that she was “greedy” for Olympic title No 3, as she and Walkden converted their garage into a gym while Manchester’s National Taekwondo Centre was closed during lockdown. But when the moment finally arrived, inspiration eluded her.
Jones had initially appeared composed, winning the first round 6-4, but Alizadeh, the bronze medallist in Rio, refused to let the reigning champion establish control. With two hits to her trunk early in the second, the seeds of her demise were sown.
As Alizadeh moved 14-10 ahead with another powerful blow, the Jones camp opted for the last resort of a video referral, but an overturn was not forthcoming. While her conqueror ripped off her headgear in triumph, she could only stare at the empty stands incredulously.
Alizadeh (in red) recovered from 6-4 down to beat the two-time defending champion
The worry for Team GB was that Jones had been one of their surefire bets, the finest taekwondo practitioner the country has produced. With her relegation to a minor medal, the realistic prediction of Tokyo golds for Britain now shrinks to 12.
Coming just half an hour after the withdrawal of Sir Andy Murray from the singles competition he had won twice, the timing could hardly have been worse. Jones had talked of becoming a “legend” here in Tokyo. Arguably, such status has already been assured in the taekwondo community. But by the standards she sets herself, she has fallen horribly short.
It is not as if she could have been unaware of Alizadeh’s threat. At the 2015 world championships, the Iranian-born athlete had beaten her en route to bronze. This, though, counted as a much greater shock, given how bulletproof Jones has been in the Olympic arena.
Not that Jones’ supporters will care to be reminded of it just yet, but Alizadeh is an astonishing story. Her draw also pitted her against an opponent from Iran, the country from which she dramatically defected last year.
Alizadeh showed no ill will towards Nahid Kiyani, but her hostility towards the country of her birth is intense. In an Instagram post announcing her defection, she had savaged the Iranian government for the oppression of women, declaring: “They took me wherever I wanted. I wore whatever they said. Every sentence they ordered me to say, I repeated. Whenever they saw fit, they exploited me.” 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 determined to spring an upset, here it was. No wonder Jones looked as if she did not know what had hit her.