Iran judo champ afraid to go home after forced to throw match against Israeli

World body to sanction Iranian judo federation as Saeid Mollaei says his family was threatened by the government to pressure him to avoid facing Israel’s Sagi Muki

In this picture taken on August 28, 2019, Iran's Saeid Mollaei (in white) fights against Belgium's Matthias Casse during the semifinal of the men's under-81kg category during the 2019 Judo World Championships, in Tokyo, Japan. (Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP)
In this picture taken on August 28, 2019, Iran's Saeid Mollaei (in white) fights against Belgium's Matthias Casse during the semifinal of the men's under-81kg category during the 2019 Judo World Championships, in Tokyo, Japan. (Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP)

An Iranian judo star said he is afraid to return home after exposing and criticizing his government’s pressure on him to deliberately lose in last week’s World Championships in Tokyo to avoid a potential bout against an Israeli opponent.

Saeid Mollaei, the defending heavyweight world champion, fled to Berlin after the championships, where he had been hoping to secure a place at the 2020 Olympic games.

“I could have been the world champion,” he said in an interview published by the International Judo Federation on Sunday. “I fought and won against an Olympic champion, an Olympics bronze-medalist and other opponents. I beat all of them. I even dreamed of the championship title… But that was not my fate: I could not compete because of the law in my country, and because I was scared of consequences for my family and myself.”

Mollaei said that he was coerced into losing his semifinal bout so as not to risk facing Israel’s Sagi Muki, the eventual winner, in the Tokyo final. The IJF said Mollaei had been pressured to lose by Iranian deputy sports minister Davar Zani. Mollaei was also reportedly pressured to bow out by Iranian Olympic Committee president Reza Salehi Amiri, who told him minutes before his semifinal match last Wednesday that Iranian security services were at his parents’ house in Tehran.

The IJF said an official from the Iranian embassy in Tokyo pretending to be a coach gained access to a restricted area to coerce the 27-year-old Tehran native to lose the match as he warmed up on the sidelines.

Mollaei, who was on track to face Muki in the finals of the men’s under-81 kilogram class, told the IJF that he bowed to the pressure and deliberately lost to Belgium’s Matthias Casse in the semifinals to avoid having to face the Israeli athlete, who ended up winning gold.

“Because of the law in my country… I was obliged not to fight against my Israeli opponent,” Mollaei told the IJF in an interview published its website. “They said: ‘This is the law, and those who do not comply with it will certainly have problems.'”

“I need help. Even if the authorities of my country told me that I can go back without any problems, I am afraid,” he told the IJF. “I am afraid of what might happen to my family and to myself.”

“For the bronze” — where Mollaei lost again, and therefore did not share the podium with Muki when the Israeli national anthem played — “I gave it only 10% so that I would comply with the law,” Mollaei said, adding, “I want to compete wherever I can. I live in a country whose law does not permit me to. We have no choice, all athletes must comply with it.

The International Judo Federation has thrown its support behind Mollaei, and has vowed help him reach the summer 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo.

President of the International Judo Federation Marius Vizer at the opening ceremony of the Judo World Championships in Budapest, Hungary on August 28, 2017. (Tamas Kovacs/MTI via AP)

IJF president Marius Vizer told AFP he would convene an emergency meeting to discuss the threats against Mollaei and his family and to decide whether to punish the Iranian judo federation.

“It is our mission to protect our athletes — that’s clear,” Vizer told AFP, saying that Mollaei may be allowed compete in the Tokyo Olympics under a different flag.

“We will do our best that he will compete in the Olympic Games. Later we will see in which team — there are different options, but one of them will be applied for the Olympics.”

Vizer was quoted by local media as saying that Mollaei had told him the pressure being exerted on his family in Iran prompted him to lose to Casse. Vizer also told Japan’s Asahi newspaper he wanted Mollaei to fight under a refugee flag at Tokyo 2020.

According to the IJF, before his semifinal match, the head of Iran’s Olympic committee told Mollaei that Iranian security agents were at his parents’ home. Others told him the agents were pressuring his father to make sure he did not compete against Muki.

“I could not compete because of the law in my country, and because I was scared of consequences for my family and myself,” he told the Judo Federation.

Iran does not recognize Israel and Iranian passports remind holders in bold red they are “not entitled to travel to occupied Palestine.”

Mollaei on Sunday fled to Berlin where he was thought to be seeking asylum, but he later denied that claim, saying he had already obtained a visa to live in Germany.

“I’ve had a German visa and I’m in Germany to stay away from the rumors,” Mollaei told the London-based Persian language channel Iran International.

Iran’s judoka Saeid Mollaei reacts after losing to Belgium’s Matthias Casse in the semi-final fight in the men’s under-81 kilogram category during the 2019 Judo World Championships in Tokyo on August 28, 2019. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)

Mollaei said he hoped to compete at next summer’s Olympics, whether it was for Iran or under IOC colors.

“God forbid something would happen to my family. But I serve my country and whatever medal I get belongs to Iran, whether it’s under the Iran or IOC flag,” he added.

“I feel sorry that maybe I won’t be able to compete for Iran again. But I didn’t train this hard just to put up this show of losing,” Mollaei said.

On Monday, Vizer said procedures were underway for the IJF to sanction the Iranian judo federation in some way, but did not specify what the disciplinary measures would be.

Vizer also said that an emergency meeting would be convened to investigate the reports of threats against Mollaei’s family.

“It’s a part of life and part of the surprises that can happen,” Vizer. “But we have rules. Everything has to happen according to the statutes of the international federation and the Olympic charter.

“Some countries have different rules — they can apply those rules in their country, but not at an international sports event,” he added. “It’s a special situation. We have to live with that and act accordingly.”

Gold medalist Israel’s Sagi Muki poses on the podium of the men’s under 81kg category during the 2019 Judo World Championships at the Nippon Budokan, a venue for the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, in Tokyo on August 28, 2019. (CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP)

Iran’s Fars news agency accused Mollaei of pre-planning his defection, quoting Iran’s judo head coach Majed Zarian as saying: “Everything was set in advance — someone in Iran must have helped him.”

There have been previous examples of Iranian athletes being told to lose to avoid facing Israeli opponents, most notably wrestler Alireza Karimi, whose coach was caught yelling “Alireza you must lose, the Israeli won” in a video that went viral in 2017.

Karimi was suspended for six months for throwing his bout, while his coach was banned for two years.

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