Taekwondo athletes in despair after NZOC refuses to confirm their participation

In February 2024, Insidethegames reported on the situation in Taekwondo New Zealand. Athletes who were due to represent New Zealand at the Olympic Qualification Tournament were told by the Oceania Taekwondo Union (OTU) that the New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) "will not be nominating any taekwondo athletes to compete at the Paris Olympic Games as there is no recognised organisation for the sport of taekwondo in New Zealand".

However, a four-member team from TNZ took part in the qualifying tournament and two of them, Eisa Mozhdeh (men's -68 kg) and Jemesa Landers (women's -67 kg), won the tournament and an Olympic berth for New Zealand. NZOC's position hasn't changed since then and the athletes who won their licences are now in a desperate situation. The main problem is that TNZ is the only MNA recognised by World Taekwondo, which is responsible for Olympic taekwondo, but TNZ is not recognised by NZOC.

New Zealand's 4-athlete team with the TNZ President Jin Keun Oh (in the middle). TNZ
New Zealand's 4-athlete team with the TNZ President Jin Keun Oh (in the middle). TNZ

One of the two qualified athletes, Iranian-born Eisa Mozhdeh, has been training for years towards his goal of Paris 2024, but now, despite winning the qualifying tournament, his participation in the Olympic Games is in serious doubt because of the misunderstandings between TNZ and NZOC.

"TNZ has been telling athletes there is a pathway to the Paris 2024 Olympics, when there is not. The New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) was also aware of my Olympic goals for 2023 and did not reach out to me with the correct information," Mozhdeh told Insidethegames.

"I have poured my heart and soul into this goal, which I have had since I was 5 years old. When I was selected for the Oceania Olympic Qualifier Tournament (held on April 6), I was so excited because winning was supposed to be one of the last steps to being selected for the Olympics. I won the gold medal at this competition and qualified for Paris 2024.

"Despite qualifying for Paris 2024, I am unable to be selected to compete at the Olympics for New Zealand because of reasons outside of my control."

Eisa Mozhdeh receiving gold medal at the Oceania Qualifiers
Eisa Mozhdeh receiving gold medal at the Oceania Qualifiers

According to Mozhdeh, Taekwondo New Zealand has been misinforming athletes about the Olympic pathway. He was told by NZOC Chief Executive Nicki Nicol that they had informed TNZ in November 2023 that they would not be sending any taekwondo athletes because Taekwondo New Zealand was not recognised by NZOC. 

"TNZ provided athletes with incorrect information and NZOC failed to reach out to me (despite NZOC being aware I had Olympic aspirations). Instead, NZOC relied on TNZ (who they should have known were providing the true story to the athletes) to tell me Olympics are not on the table. A family member even reached out to NZOC in 2023 about Taekwondo and Olympics and NZOC referred my family to TNZ instead of providing information. After this, we reached out to TNZ again to confirm Paris 2024 was on the table, and TNZ told us definitively that there would be an Olympic pathway," continues the athlete.

TNZ general secretary Darryl June said in his response to Insidethegames' enquiry that the process for TNZ's reinstatement by the NZOC had slowed down despite all the information requested being provided.

"The information requested is being duplicated and the process has prolonged to a point that now has impacted on our athletes.  WT has supported our cause for NZOC membership reinstatement but the response from NZOC remains the same. 

During the process of working with NZOC to meet requirements, within 12 months of the Paris Olympics commencing, TNZ was told, due to not being an NZOC member, TNZ could not submit athletes to NZOC for the 2024 Paris Olympic games nor were we aware that athletes would not be able to submit directly to TNZ as was the case with Tom Burns.  TNZ was told that the process was at least a 2 year exercise and since TNZ had not been given the necessary information that was required by a National Governing Organisation (NGO), our 2024 Paris Olympic goal was not achievable," was written in the answer.

The so-called Tom Burns case refers to the taekwondo athlete Tom Burns, who qualified for Tokyo 2020 from New Zealand and was given the green light by the NZOC even though there was no taekwondo federation recognised by the NZOC at the time. According to Mozhdeh, TNZ often used Tom Burns as an example of how to apply for Olympic selection after winning the qualifier, although, as explained later, Tom Burns had followed a different route.

Tom Burns is the last Taekwondo athlete from New Zealand to participate at the Olympis Games. GETTY IMAGES
Tom Burns is the last Taekwondo athlete from New Zealand to participate at the Olympis Games. GETTY IMAGES

"In early 2024 Nicki Nicol informed me selection is not possible for Taekwondo athletes because NZOC does not recognise TNZ. We have inquired multiple times about a special consideration pathway due to the current circumstances. Nicki has shut all of these inquiries down and say there is nothing they can do because of the NZOC rules. However, NZOC has very broad powers to amend or make new rules and I do not believe they have truly done everything they can," tells Mozhdeh.

In the summer of 2023, athletes were told by TNZ that there was a pathway to the Paris 2024. The original selection document for the Oceania Olympic Qualifying Event in Solomon Islands included a clause stating that the selection for the Oceania Olympic Qualifying Event would also be based on who had the best chance of going to the Olympics. 

According to Mozhdeh, from the date of this selection document release until the beginning of 2024, athletes were told that TNZ was working with the New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) to reach an agreement for TNZ to be able to nominate athletes for Olympic selection and that they were close. Athletes were told that even if this was not successful, they could apply directly to the NZOC for selection after qualification.

Part of Eisa's support team emailed NZOC to check what was happening with the Olympics, and NZOC replied that we should communicate with the taekwondo body. Eisa's coach, Stella Bismark, emailed TNZ in October 2023 to confirm the status for the Olympic Games, and the TNZ Secretary General replied that they were close to an agreement with NZOC, and even if TNZ could not nominate athletes, athletes could apply directly to NZOC for Olympic selection.

TNZ Secretary General Darryl June says that NZOC did not inform TNZ in time to provide the necessary information to reinstate NZOC membership and therefore allow TNZ to nominate athletes for the Paris 2024. "In fact, TNZ was progressing through a process with NZOC with the understanding that if TNZ was able to meet the necessary criteria, membership would be reinstated and our athletes would be eligible for submission to the games.  At no point during this time was TNZ informed that there was not the chance for membership to be reinstated or that our athletes would be disadvantaged," says June.

Despite the NZOC's decision, TNZ announced in February 2024 that a full squad will travel to Solomon Islands in April for a qualifying tournament.

New Zealand Taekwkondo athletes at the Oceania Qualifiers. TNZ
New Zealand Taekwkondo athletes at the Oceania Qualifiers. TNZ

"In early February 2024, we put an inquiry on the NZOC website, asking what will be needed in our application for the 2024 Olympics after winning the Qualifier. NZOC replied on 08 February stating no Taekwondo athletes were eligible to be selected for Paris 2024 because TNZ is not a member of the New Zealand Olympic Committee. NZOC said they thought athletes were aware there was no Olympic pathway for 2024. I was in a state of shock for weeks after this and did not know what to do. That night was one of the hardest nights of my life," tells Mozhdeh.

"On receipt of this email, we asked NZOC if special consideration would be possible. NZOC says it is not, because there are very strict processes in place for Olympic selection and there is no special consideration available. They have said there is no special consideration pathway and that they are unable to do anything because of their strict processes they have to follow to achieve fairness and transparency for all athletes," continued the athlete.

Mozhdeh says that after NZOC's response, communication between him and TNZ deteriorated. 

"I sent NZOC’s email to the group chat for people going to the Qualifier, so that the other athletes could be made aware of the situation. I then left the group chat to clear my head. TNZ did not respond to this, or reach out with an apology or explanation.

"My coach emailed TNZ to let them know that because of this situation she will be taking over communication on behalf of me, so that I could focus on my upcoming competition. TNZ told her she should not be contacting organisations outside of TNZ for information. We did not follow this advice, as TNZ had told us the pathway to Olympics was through NZOC so it did not make sense for athletes and their teams to be unable to reach out to NZOC for information. We continued talking with NZOC. From these conversations, NZOC says they made it very clear to TNZ that there is no Olympic pathway for a long time, and at least definitively from November 2023," tell the athlete.

Stella Bismark, Mozhdeh's coach, contacted OTU and they also made it clear that TNZ had been aware of the problem for a long time. OTU urged TNZ to inform the athletes and even to withdraw the New Zealand team from the qualifiers so that they would not have false hopes of going to the Olympics. TNZ did not act on these recommendations.

Eisa Mozhdeh with his partner and coach Stella Bismark. MOZHDEH MARTIAL ARTS
Eisa Mozhdeh with his partner and coach Stella Bismark. MOZHDEH MARTIAL ARTS

According to Darryl June, there were several reasons for TNZ not to withdraw from the tournament, despite NZOC's announcement.

"The plan was always to attend the Olympic qualifier.  The timing of our NZOC process meant that in order to plan for the membership reinstatement, we needed our athletes to compete in the Olympic qualifier. With this in mind, flights and accommodation were also booked ahead of the information provided by NZOC that due to the lack of NZOC membership, our athletes would not be eligible for the 2024 Paris Olympic games.

"When TNZ was finally informed about NZOC’s decision not to approve our athletes, the understanding was that they could still approach NZOC as individuals, as Tom Burns had done in 2020 while the previous governing body was in dispute. Athletes were told this information as soon as TNZ was made aware and it was reiterated to them on numerous occasions.

"Despite this, TNZ was hopeful that if any of our athletes were to gain the quota spot at the Olympic qualifier, there was still a possibility that we could secure the help of WT to have our athletes attend the Olympics," wrote June in his answer. 

"It has been extremely difficult to continue training towards the competition that was held on April 6th, but I did not want to sacrifice all of my hard work and I wanted to prove to myself that I did everything within my control to get to the Olympics," tells Mozhdeh about his decision not to withdraw from the qualifying tournament.

The athlete also accuses NZOC of violating its own values. "I believe they have the power to consider selection of New Zealand Taekwondo athletes but are choosing not to. The Olympics is about sport and the athletes, yet the athletes are not being put first here. The NZOC’s values include fairness, and development of sport. It does not feel as though they are upholding these values in this situation."

Jemesa Landers (on top) also won the Oceania Qualifiers, but can miss the Olympic Games. TNZ
Jemesa Landers (on top) also won the Oceania Qualifiers, but can miss the Olympic Games. TNZ

Mozhdeh does not give up until there is a small hope. "We have also reached out to world taekwondo about being sent as an independent athlete due to the unfairness of this situation, but they confirmed that NZOC has rejected the quota place I won. World Taekwondo also confirmed they cannot do anything to help and the quota place will be reallocated to another athlete from another country," tells the athlete.

According to Darryl June, TNZ will still fight to have their athletes attend the Paris 2024. 

"TNZ is working on it and has always been working on it.  The misconception held by most is that TNZ has not been working on this and this is just not truthful.  The TNZ board have worked tirelessly, through all of the hoops and over all of the hurdles it has been asked to navigate, all for the athletes.  The pathway toward NZOC membership reinstatement is littered with ambiguity, incompetence and conflicts of interest, yet TNZ will continue to struggle for our athletes," says June.

The whole situation has left a big impact on Eisa’s life. "I scheduled my entire life around the Olympics and what would give me the best chance of going to and performing well at the Olympic Games. I have been consistently training 3-4 times per day, 6 days a week. I have put the Olympic Games as the highest priority in my life for years. I was very happy to do this when I believed there was an Olympic pathway, as I know the Olympic journey takes a lot of sacrifice."

Eisa even postponed his wedding after the Olympic Games to be fully ready for the competitions. 

"Finding out the Olympics was not on the table because of issues between TNZ and NZOC was heartbreaking. My partner, friends and family have also put in so much time and energy into supporting me and helping to take over some of my roles at work, helping with my diet, scheduling and everything in between. Every decision over the past few years I made was about what would help me get to the Olympics."

He says it has cost him tens of thousands of dollars, as taekwondo is completely self-funded, but the worst part has been the mental strain. 

Eisa Mozhdeh at (on top) during the award ceremony of the Oceania Qualifiers
Eisa Mozhdeh at (on top) during the award ceremony of the Oceania Qualifiers

"I was very close with some of the people in TNZ, and so it is very hard to process that the athletes have been misled in this situation.

"When I got the message from NZOC, part of me wanted TNZ to reach out and to say it is all a big misunderstanding, or that they had no idea that Olympics was not on the table. But for the last 2 months, TNZ has not reached out privately or publicly about this. It feels like the situation is being swept under the rug. I want my national body leadership to be able to step up and acknowledge when something has gone wrong and make the appropriate changes in leadership to fix it. NZOC should also take some responsibility for what has happened.

"Since I found out from NZOC that the Olympics is not on the table on 08 February 2024, every day has felt like a year. Every minute has been a grieving process, but I still had to push myself to train for the Olympic Qualifier. I have not even been in a good enough head space to pick up calls or return messages from my siblings, family, or close friends. I have not been sleeping, I had to delete social media, and I have been unable to talk with people about it. Talking with my partner and her dad as well as a psychologist has been very helpful."

He continued to prepare for the qualifying tournament to finish on a high note. "I have still been training the same, but the effort required to get to each session is much larger and I have been feeling extremely mentally drained and empty. On top of preparing for my fights, I had been trying to prepare mentally for going to Solomon islands. I wanted to finish on a note I can be proud of, which I have now done."

The moment Eisa Mozhdeh (in blue) won the Oceania Qualifiers
The moment Eisa Mozhdeh (in blue) won the Oceania Qualifiers

Eisa hopes that the governance issues will be over in time for Los Angeles 2028.

"As a coach, it is so important to me that the right leadership and processes are in place for the next generation of athletes with Olympic aspirations. I hope that the necessary changes to governance can be made in time for the 2028 Olympics.

"I feel as an athlete that there is currently no accountability for the people in charge and that they are ignoring the impact this has had on the athletes. These bodies are meant to be supporting and advocating for athletes and have really let us down."

In the end Eisa says that all the support he has offered is the reason to continue pushing through. 

"I want to mention all of my friends, family, club members and community for the never-ending love and support they have given me. Everyone has sent the kindest messages and offered so much support and I will forever be grateful for this. These people around me, and my students, are the reason I could continue pushing through. My community makes me feel like I am not alone. Even if I have not returned everyone’s messages they truly mean the world to me," concludes the athlete.