An Iranian judo star, who fled his home country after criticizing Tehran for pressuring him to throw matches to avoid competing against an Israeli opponent, has congratulated the Israeli on winning a gold medal.
The extraordinary social media exchange between Iranian and Israeli athletes came after Saeid Mollaei, the defending under-81 kilogram class world champion, fled to Berlin after last week’s World Championships in Tokyo, where he was hoping to secure a place at the 2020 Olympic games.
He said Sunday that he was afraid to return home after exposing and criticizing his government’s pressure on him to deliberately lose in the semifinals to avoid a potential bout against Israel’s Sagi Muki.
“Congratulation champion,” Mollaei replied to an Instagram post by Muki, who won a gold medal in the tournament, becoming Israel’s first-ever male judo world champion. Mollaei added emojis of a gold medal and a championship cup.
“Thank you,” Muki responded. “You are an inspiration as a human being and as an athlete.”
Mollaei has said he was coerced into losing his semifinal bout so as not to risk facing Muki in the Tokyo final. The International Judo Federation (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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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,” he said.
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.
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.
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.