Israel says Iran forced its judoka to throw semifinal to avoid facing Sagi Muki

Local judo chief Moshe Fonti says Saeid Mollaei intended to compete to the end even if it meant squaring off against Israeli, but then Iranian agents arrived at his family home

Saeid Mollaei in 2018 (YouTube screenshot)
Saeid Mollaei in 2018 (YouTube screenshot)

The chairman of the Israel Judo Association said Thursday that Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei was coerced into throwing his semifinal battle against Belgium’s Matthias Casse a day earlier at the World Judo Championship in Tokyo in order to avoid facing Israel’s Sagi Muki in the final.

In the past Iran has forbidden its athletes to compete against Israelis. In May, the International Judo Federation said it had reached an agreement with Iran to end the boycott, though the head of Iran’s national Olympic committee later denied it.

Mollaei has been accused of faking injuries and intentionally losing fights in the past to avoid facing Muki.

IJO head Moshe Fonti, speaking to Army Radio, said that an hour before Wednesday’s semifinals, the Israeli team heard that Mollaei, ranked No. 1 in the world, “intended to continue the contest, even if he had to face Sagi Muki at the final. We heard he’d asked the head of the Iranian judo association to ensure his family was kept safe.”

At the semifinals Mollaei was paired with Casse and Muki faced Egyptian Mohamed Abdelaal. After Muki defeated Abdelaal (the Egyptian’s refusal to shake Muki’s hand caused further controversy), it became clear that if Mollaei defeated the Belgian he would face off against the Israeli for the gold.

“From what we understand, within a short time Iranian intelligence officials came both to his home in Iran and to the judo arena and warned him,” Fonti said.

“I don’t know what happened there, but eventually he lost both battles,” Fonti said, referring to the fight against Casse and the subsequent fight for the bronze against Luka Maisuradze of Georgia. “He didn’t make it to the final with Sagi and he didn’t make it to the podium.”

Israeli judo commentator Miri Nevo said it was clear that Mollaei carried out what she called “a calibrated defeat,” to ensure he lost in the semifinal. She sniped that if the Iranians were so patriotic and hostile to Israel, they should “try to beat us” in sports.

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

Muki eventually defeated Casse and was named world champion, the first male Israeli athlete to reach the top. Mollaei, who had been reigning world champion after winning last year’s games, ended the contest in fifth place. If he had taken fourth or above he would have had to stand on the podium as Israel’s national anthem “Hatikvah” was played in honor of Muki.

Fonti did not blame Mollaei for his actions, saying that though he “had promised the head of the International Judo Federation he would compete… there were people at his family’s home in Iran. You can’t judge an athlete in such a situation.”

Muki on Wednesday said Mollaei was an “excellent” sportsman, while Israel’s team coach Oren Smadja said he was “a terrific guy.”

The notion that Mollaei had thrown his fight with Casse to avoid facing Muki was prevalent in outlets covering the contest.

Website Inside the Games noted that Mollaei, having “looked unstoppable in the preliminaries,” suddenly claimed to have suffered a head injury ahead of his fight with Casse and came to the fight “wearing a huge bandage on his head.” He “barely attempted a throw during the bout, before being thrown for ippon by Calle’s first real attack.”

Belgium’s Matthias Casse (in blue) celebrates winning the semifinal fight against a bandaged Saeid Mollaei of Iran in the men’s under 81kg category during the 2019 Judo World Championships at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo on August 28, 2019. (CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP)

French site RMC Sport said Mollaei “threw the semifinal heat after seeing [Muki’s] qualification for the final.”

It also reported that “in the morning, in the warm-up room, witnesses described Saied Mollaei as extremely agitated, on the verge of tears, citing the danger to his family.”

There were reports that prior to losing his fight against Casse, Mollaei had threatened during earlier stages of the competition to quit if he was paired up with Muki.

Cases of Iranian intentionally losing matches to avoid facing Israelis have been reported in the past. Last year an Iranian wrestler was banned for six months for deliberately throwing a match to avoid facing an Israeli opponent.

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