New Zealand's Max Watene said he feels it would be "unsafe" to attend the World Taekwondo Championships in Baku as a queer athlete ©Getty Images

New Zealand's Max Watene has said he will refuse to compete at this year's World Taekwondo Championships in Azerbaijan's capital Baku because of the host nation's record on LGBTQ+ rights.

Azerbaijan is set to host the World Championships for the first time from May 29 to June 6, where World Taekwondo is expected to celebrate its 50-year anniversary.

Watene is a queer athlete, and previously competed at the World Championships in Manchester in 2019.

He was a silver medallist in the men's under-80 kilograms event at the last edition of the Pacific Games in Samoa's capital Apia in 2019 and is a two-time bronze medallist at the Oceania Championships, and is expected to be in contention to qualify for the Olympic Games for the first time at Paris 2024.

However, he has opted to withdraw from the World Championships on safety grounds, and has described Azerbaijan's record on gay rights as "terrible".

"It’s unsafe, but also it goes against my moral code," Watene said, as reported by the New Zealand Herald.

Taekwondo New Zealand confirmed Watene's withdrawal, and expressed its support for his decision.

"Max Watene is a talented Taekwondo athlete who has certainly earned his place amongst the top New Zealand Taekwondo fighters currently competing," it said.

"However, he has decided to withdraw from the selection process for the 2023 World Taekwondo Championships due to the perceived risk to his wellbeing as a gay man if he were to be selected and attend the event in Azerbaijan. 

"Taekwondo New Zealand support all of its athletes and the decisions they make regarding their personal safety and Max has made the difficult decision to withdrawal from the selection process. 

"Although it is disappointing to not have Max available for selection, we understand the reasons for the decision he has made."

insidethegames has asked World Taekwondo for a comment on Watene's withdrawal.

World Taekwondo is due to celebrate its 50th anniversary at the World Championships in Baku later this year ©World Taekwondo
World Taekwondo is due to celebrate its 50th anniversary at the World Championships in Baku later this year ©World Taekwondo

Taekwondo New Zealand added that Cole Watene, Alex Ryder, Honestly Watene and Shauna Jull-Edwards are set to represent the country at the World Championships, and said "the group are training well toward the event and are looking forward to taking their opportunity on the world stage".

Although same-sex relationships have been legal since 2000, homosexuality remains a taboo subject in Azerbaijan and human rights campaigners have expressed serious concerns over the treatment of LGBTQ+ people.

This was one of the issues which dominated the build-up to the inaugural European Games in Baku in 2015, along with concerns over a crackdown on press freedom and dissident activists under the country's authoritarian President Ilham Aliyev, who has held the role since 2003 and is also National Olympic Committee President.

Azerbaijan's staging of major events including men's 2020 UEFA European Championship matches and a Formula One Grand Prix, and its tourism authority's former sponsorship of Spanish football club Atletico Madrid has prompted accusations of attempted sportswashing.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch reported that a "violent campaign, arresting and torturing men presumed to be gay or bisexual, as well as transgender women" had been conducted by police in Azerbaijan, and it has regularly been ranked as the worst European country for LGBTQ+ rights by the advocacy group ILGA-Europe.

Rights groups have also complained that international criticism of Aliyev's regime has been muted because of its strategic importance and wealth.