Iran judoka, forced to throw match to avoid Israeli, refuses to compete for Iran

Former world no. 1 Saeid Mollaei, who fled to Germany after pressure from Tehran to lose semifinal last week in Tokyo, says he’ll now fight under the Olympic flag

Belgium's Matthias Casse (in blue) celebrates winning the semifinal fight against Iran's Saeid Mollaei in the men's under-81 kilogram category during the 2019 Judo World Championships in Tokyo on August 28, 2019. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)
Belgium's Matthias Casse (in blue) celebrates winning the semifinal fight against Iran's Saeid Mollaei in the men's under-81 kilogram category during the 2019 Judo World Championships in Tokyo on August 28, 2019. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)

Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei, who fled to Europe last week after Iranian authorities forced him to throw a match to avoid an Israeli rival at judo’s world championship in Tokyo, said Sunday he would no longer compete for Iran. In future, he said, he would compete under the Olympic flag.

“I love Iran very much, but winning a medal is the most important thing for me,” Mollaei told the London-based Iran International television channel in an interview aired Sunday, Mollaei’s first public comments after his dramatic ouster from Wednesday’s championship.

Mollaei fled to Germany after complaining to International Judo Federation chief Marius Vizer that Iran’s Olympic committee demanded he throw his semifinal match against Belgium’s Matthias Casse in order to avoid the risk of entering the final against Israel’s Sagi Muki.

Muki would go on to win the world championship later in the day.

In the Sunday interview, Mollaei denied reports that he was seeking asylum, saying he already lived in Germany.

Saeid Mollaei in 2018 (YouTube screenshot)

“I’m not moving to Germany. I did not ask for asylum, and I’m not a refugee. I own an apartment in Germany,” he said, according to translations by Hebrew-language media on Sunday.

But the former world champion will no longer represent Iran at international competitions or the Olympics over the prohibition to compete against Israelis.

“After [Israeli judoka] Sagi Muki made the final, Iran put pressure on me to intentionally lose in my semifinal [match against Casse],” he told Iran International.

“But I came to compete for real, not to put on a show…. I will compete in the Olympics under the Olympic flag,” he said.

Mollaei’s case highlighted Iran’s longstanding demand of its top athletes never to be seen competing with Israelis, as the regime in Tehran sees Israel as an enemy and has called for its destruction.

Sagi Muki of Israel reacts after defeating Matthias Casse of Belgium during a men’s under-81 kilogram final of the World Judo Championships in Tokyo, August 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

In the fracas at last week’s championship, the head of the International Judo Federation, Marius Vizer, who has warned Iran in the past against throwing matches to avoid Israelis, reportedly threatened to bar Iran from participating in the Olympics — in any sport — if Mollaei refused to face Muki.

Culture Minister Miri Regev spoke on the phone with Vizer on Sunday and offered any assistance necessary in the situation regarding Mollaei. She also proposed that a special match be organized in which the Iranian and Israeli judokas could face off free of outside pressures.

The threat from Vizer came in a phone call Wednesday to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani just a few minutes before Mollaei was to take the mat against Casse, Israeli media reported on Sunday.

Vizer was said to be incensed at Iranian officials’ demand that Mollaei throw the match, a demand that reportedly included the arrival of Iranian intelligence operatives at the home of Mollaei’s family in Tehran.

In the past Iran has forbidden its athletes from competing against Israelis. In May, after Vizer wrote to the head of the Iranian Judo Federation to protest the practice, the international body said it had reached an agreement with Iran to end the boycott.

But despite a May 9 letter from Iranian judo and Olympic officials to Vizer promising to “comply with the Olympic charter and principles of non-discrimination,” the head of Iran’s Olympic committee, apparently under pressure from the government, later denied it had been made.

Mollaei, who was ranked world no. 1 until Muki took gold on Wednesday, has been accused of faking injuries and intentionally losing fights in the past to avoid facing the Israeli.

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