The head of the International Judo Federation reportedly threatened to bar Iran from participating in the Olympics — in any sport — if its judoka refused to face Israel’s Sagi Muki at the sport’s World Championship last week in Tokyo.
Shortly before Iranian competitor Saeid Mollaei allegedly threw his semifinal battle against Belgium’s Matthias Casse on Wednesday, the athlete received a phone call from Iran, Israel’s Army Radio reported Sunday.
It was his mother, the report said, who begged him not to win the round and risk facing an Israeli competitor in the final, when he would be forced under the sport’s rules to bow to his opponent, and face the risk of later standing next to Muki with Israel’s anthem “Hatikva” playing in the hall.
The call was reported to International Judo Federation chief Marius Vizer, reportedly by a staffer attached by Vizer to the Iranian delegation for the express purpose of keeping tabs on any attempts to pressure the Iranian competitor to throw a match.
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. 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 over the commitment, 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.
After hearing of the call from Mollaei’s mother, an enraged Vizer called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani minutes before the Wednesday match, the Israeli report said, and railed against the pressure brought against the athlete and his family. Iranian intelligence agents were reportedly in Mollaei’s family home at the time.
Vizer is said to have threatened Rouhani with the complete exclusion of any athletes representing Iran from all events at the 2020 Summer Olympics. He reportedly said the threat was backed by International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach.
Mollaei went on to lose the match to Casse a few minutes later, with most observers concluding he had intentionally thrown the contest.
Muki went on to defeat Casse in the final, becoming the first Israeli man to win a World Championship gold.
Israeli Judo Association chairman Moshe Ponti, speaking to Army Radio on Thursday, urged fans not to judge the Iranian too harshly, saying that an hour before Wednesday’s semifinals, the Israeli team heard that Mollaei “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.”
He added: “There were some other elements who arrived in the hall [ahead of Mollaei’s last match], and I don’t want to say threatened him, but they were from Iranian intelligence, and it may have influenced him. They were at his house in Iran, and his family was in the kind of situation where you just can’t bring yourself to judge an athlete” for his actions.
The story didn’t end with the conclusion of Wednesday’s championship contest.
On Saturday, Vizer told Japanese media that Mollaei had approached him after the match and confided that the Iranian government had pressured him to throw the battle, and had told his family to do the same.
Vizer said the International Judo Federation had decided to allow Mollaei to compete in the future as a member of the team for international refugees at the 2020 summer Olympics, also slated to take place in Tokyo, and that the Iranian judoka had safely traveled to Germany where he planned to file a request for asylum.
There was no immediate word on Iranian participation in the upcoming Olympics, slated to take place July 24 to August 9, 2020.
One Iranian news outlet, Iran International, blamed Israel for the dramatic events. It accused Vizer over the weekend of masterminding an “operation” to whisk Mollaei to Germany in order “to harm Iran for Israel’s sake.” The network said Vizer had ordered a car with a German security guard to pick up Mollaei from the tournament and take him to the airport. Other Iranian reports said that Vizer had sent security guards to separate Mollaei from his trainer, who judo federation officials believed was reporting on him to Iranian intelligence back home, so that he could be hurried into a waiting private airport escort. Vizer, Iran International claimed, was in touch with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “This was a conspiracy of the IJF and Israel,” it said.
Iran’s Olympic committee is expected to file a complaint to the International Olympic Committee against the IJF’s alleged actions and requesting intervention in the matter.
Muki on Wednesday said Mollaei was an “excellent” sportsman, while Israel’s team coach Oren Smadja said he was “a terrific guy.”
Cases of Iranians 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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