An Iranian-born Icelandic citizen on his way to the United States to compete in a major taekwondo event was denied entry to the country under provisions of a recent executive order temporarily barring U.S. travel by citizens of seven majority-Muslim nations.
Meisam Rafiei, 30, a member of the Icelandic national taekwondo team, posted a photo of himself on his Facebook page Monday with this caption: "Was on my way to US Open to compete for Iceland with my Icelandic passport and was denied because I was born in Iran."
In a phone interview with ESPN on Tuesday morning, Rafiei said being ushered off the plane in front of other passengers was a difficult moment.
"Everyone was looking at me," he said.
Rafiei is still hopeful he will be allowed to travel to the competition. He said Keith Ferguson, the CEO/executive director of USA Taekwondo, had contacted him to say he was sorry about the situation and that the federation was doing all it could on his behalf.
"I only know good things about America," Rafiei said. "I'm not angry about America. I feel bad because I cannot go. I'm competing to follow my dream."
The weigh-in for Rafiei's class is Wednesday and he had planned to compete Thursday. The event at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort and Casino starts Tuesday.
Steve McNally, USA Taekwondo director of marketing and communications, told ESPN in an email that federation officials are working with the U.S. Olympic Committee "and the relevant government authorities to try and resolve the situation in time for him to compete."
Rafiei, who holds dual citizenship, said he moved to Iceland in 2010 to work as a coach and pursue his Olympic ambitions, which he felt were blocked in Iran. He received expedited citizenship from Iceland in 2012.
He said he has many friends and contacts in the sport in the United States and last visited in late December, when he spent 10 days training with friends in the Dallas area.
According to a report in Morgunbladid, Iceland's largest daily newspaper, Rafiei was advised prior to his trip that there could be an issue with his travel, but he was issued a boarding pass for his WOW Air flight at Keflavik airport in Reykjavik. Airline personnel subsequently contacted U.S. authorities for guidance and asked Rafiei to get off the airplane before takeoff, the newspaper reported.
Rafiei, who is also a coach, competed for Iran earlier in his career. He won the 2002 World Junior Championship and two World Military Championships for that country in 2006 and 2008. He is currently ranked 59th in the world in the 58-kilogram class, according to the World Taekwondo Federation's website.
Rafiei was a 2016 Nordic Taekwondo champion in his weight class in a competition that includes clubs from the Scandinavian countries.