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Tokyo 2020

Winning judo silver in Tokyo, Iranian defector Mollaei dedicates medal to Israel

Judoka says ‘todah’ to Israelis for support; Israeli Sagi Muki, who had disappointing finish, congratulates his unlikely friend: ‘I’m so happy… He deserves it’

Saeid Mollaei of Mongolia celebrates with his silver medal during the award ceremony for the men -81kg judo match at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, Tuesday, July 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Saeid Mollaei of Mongolia celebrates with his silver medal during the award ceremony for the men -81kg judo match at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, Tuesday, July 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Saeid Mollaei, a former Iranian judoka now representing Mongolia, took home the silver medal in the men’s 81-kilogram division, losing the gold to Takanori Nagase of Japan.

It was the first Olympic medal for Mollaei, two years after he left his native Iran, revealing that his national team coaches had ordered him to lose in the semifinals of the 2019 World Championships in Tokyo to avoid facing Israel’s Sagi Muki in the final. Mollaei subsequently moved to Germany and then acquired Mongolian citizenship.

Mollaei told the Israeli Sports Channel that he was thankful for the support he’s received from Israel over the years.

“Thank you to Israel for the good energy. This medal is dedicated also to Israel,” he told the network. “I hope the Israelis are happy with this win.”

He added in Hebrew: “Todah” (thank you).

Muki congratulated his friend on his achievement, despite his own disappointing finish on Tuesday.

“I’m super happy for Saeid,” Muki told a press conference of Israeli reporters on Tuesday. “I know what he’s gone through, and how much he wanted it. He’s a very close friend of mine, and I’m so happy that he succeeded in achieving his dream. He deserves it — his journey is incredibly inspiring.”

Judo champions Saeid Mollaei, left, and Sagi Muki will be featured in an MGM TV series about their friendship. (Courtesy PR)

Mollaei and Muki became friends following the highly publicized incident at the 2019 World Championships, and have cheered each other on over the past few years. In February, Mollaei competed at the Grand Slam international judo competition held in Tel Aviv, also taking home the silver, and told CNN that Israel had been “very good to me since I arrived,” adding that the Israeli judo team members “have been very kind. That is something I will never forget.”

The story of the unlikely friendship between Mollaei and Muki is being developed for television by Israel’s Tadmor Entertainment and MGM.

Two judokas bowed out of the Tokyo 2020 Games in order to avoid facing Israeli Tohar Butbul, something the International Olympic Committee vowed to investigate. Sudan’s Mohamed Abdalrasool failed to appear at his slated competition against Butbul in the men’s 73-kg division on Monday, without providing a reason. And on Saturday, Algerian judoka Fethi Nourine pulled out of the contest to avoid facing Butbul, citing his support for the Palestinian cause.

“Obviously the IOC is always concerned in these cases and is monitoring it very closely,” International Olympic Committee director of solidarity James Macleod told a media briefing in Tokyo on Tuesday. “Clearly if there are flagrant abuses of the Olympic charter, the IOC will take all necessary measures in that respect.”

Gold medalist Japan’s Takanori Nagase (white) and silver medalist Mongolia’s Saeid Mollaei react after the judo men’s -81kg gold medal bout during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo on July 27, 2021. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

Asked by reporters about the behavior of the Algerian and Sudanese athletes — as well as a similar pattern in the past from Iranian and Egyptian competitors — Macleod said the IOC takes every incident seriously.

“The IOC is looking at every case that’s brought to us,” he said on Tuesday. “We will investigate anything that is raised to us, even from third parties. We will work with the national Olympic committees concerned, the international federations, etc., to respond to those on a case-by-case basis.”

The IOC official added that the Olympic organization “has been very clear that non-discrimination, autonomy — all of these principles that are in the Olympic charter — are things we will not flinch from and we will adopt a strict position on all of those.”

In April, the International Judo Federation issued a four-year ban against the Iranian Judo Federation over Tehran’s demands that its athletes not face Israeli opponents.

The ban was backdated to begin in September 2019, when Mollaei left the Iranian team during the World Championship in Tokyo.

Israel’s Sagi Muki (white) and Brazil’s Eduardo Yudy Santos compete in the judo men’s -81kg elimination round bout during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo on July 27, 2021. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

Meanwhile Muki, one of Israel’s top medal hopes at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, finished in a disappointing ninth place on Tuesday, failing to advance to the quarterfinals in his weight class.

After his loss, Muki said that although he was disappointed, he had done the best that he could.

“It was a difficult day,” he said in a post-match interview. “There was a very close fight, but I could not bring things together to win it. Of course I did not want it to end like this, but I know I gave my all.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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