2012 heroes 'dead' to Iran – but alive in High Barnet

Tom Peck meets the two boxers who were meant to fight for Olympic gold, but instead had to flee to London from a regime determined to persecute them

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Omran Ikbari and Hasan Karkardi are well known in Iran. YouTube is full of clips of them draped in their national colours, fighting (and for the most part comfortably winning) televised amateur boxing matches all over the world. They should have fought in the Olympics.

But while their countrymen paraded round the stadium in Stratford, they were still travelling from Iran to London hidden in the backs of trucks, escaping the Iranian secret police.

Having applied for asylum, they now share the living room of a one-bedroom flat in High Barnet, north London, provided by a fellow Iranian exile, a war veteran who fled the country 20 years ago after political persecution. "Imagine if you had been forced out of your home for 20 years," Nader Moradi says, while acting as an interpreter in an interview with The Independent, "and suddenly Amir Khan is staying in your living room. It's unbelievable."

Omran, 24, is a bantamweight; he sleeps on the sofa. Hasan, 25, is a light heavyweight and is far too big for the camp bed set up for him. It is a far cry from the middle-class home they hurriedly left behind in Iran.

Their crime? "For me, the problems started when I won a medal in the Asian Championships," Omran says. When I arrived home, I told the reporters at the airport I was going to give the medal to my mother. They asked me why I wouldn't give my medal to one of the government's religious leaders, as most athletes do. It was like I let them down, by favouring my mother over the government."

On YouTube there is a clip of Iran's London Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Hamid Sourian, sitting with President Ahmadinejad, offering him medals from previous victories.

Hasan says: "It was fine for several years. My problem started after I won the Asian boxing championship. When someone becomes a champion in Iran, the government expects you to behave in the way that they want, otherwise they will destroy you."

Not long after these incidents earlier this year, they were kicked out of the national team.

"Before the London Olympics, state newspaper reporters interviewed us," says Omran. "They asked us why we were not taking part in the London Olympics. We told them it was because of corruption, but this was never printed. Rather they threatened not to interview us any more.

"Then plain clothes authorities arrived at my house, looking for me, claiming they had permission to come inside. Then I knew I had to leave."

For Hasan, it was a friendly government official in his hometown of Amol who told him he should go.

Hasan left first; and the day after Omran was smuggled over the border into Iraq, reports appeared in state media that the two men had been involved in a road accident in Iran.

Their journey to the UK took several months. Hasan ended up in a detention centre in Wakefield before coming to London. Both men have family at home, and are reluctant to reveal the full details of what happened to them. "Many many public figures have been killed, not only those in Iran, but those who have left. It's done quite easily. But we are not politicians, we are sportsmen," says Hasan.

"In my town, in Amol, on the Caspian Sea, out of one window of my house, you can see the ocean; out of the other window, you can see the mountains. It is beautiful. I hate the people who have forced me to leave my home, but I am also feel happy and lucky to be alive."

Refusing to toe the line, and the consequences that have resulted from it, was more than a matter of pride. "If we do as the government says," Omran says, "how can we go back to our homes and hold our heads up high? We will be criticised in our communities."

Now they are running, and training as much as they can. "I have fought all over the world. Iran, the USA, China, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, China," says Omran. "Now I don't know if I will be able to again."

The Iranian regime came close to collapse three years ago. The two men are still young. Certainly things are very different from the way they have been earlier on in Mr Moradi's long exile – a period which he refers to as "a 20-year silent meditation in the mountains". Who knows what the future may hold?

I ask Omran if he is optimistic about being able to go back one day. "I don't know," he replies. "I am not a politician. I am not a historian. I am just a sportsman. In the meantime, if the Great Britain team needs two fit, strong lads. We will happily box for Great Britain, if they need us."

Hasan has already fought against Ehsan Rouzbahani, the light heavyweight who represented Iran at the Olympics – and has beaten him 12 times.