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Winning silver in Tel Aviv, Iranian judoka ‘will never forget Israeli kindness’

After fleeing his country, Saeid Mollaei, who now competes for Mongolia, makes historic achievement for an Iranian in Israel; Israeli Tohar Butbul wins bronze

  • Iranian-born Mongolian judoka Saeid Mollaei (L), wearing the silver medal, greets Uzbekistan's gold medal winner Sharofiddin Boltaboev after the finals of the men's under 81kg category of Tel Aviv Grand Slam 2021 in Tel Aviv, on February 19, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
    Iranian-born Mongolian judoka Saeid Mollaei (L), wearing the silver medal, greets Uzbekistan's gold medal winner Sharofiddin Boltaboev after the finals of the men's under 81kg category of Tel Aviv Grand Slam 2021 in Tel Aviv, on February 19, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
  • Iranian-born Mongolian judoka Saeid Mollaei competes during the finals of the men's under 81kg category of Tel Aviv Grand Slam 2021 in Tel Aviv, on February 19, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
    Iranian-born Mongolian judoka Saeid Mollaei competes during the finals of the men's under 81kg category of Tel Aviv Grand Slam 2021 in Tel Aviv, on February 19, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
  • Iranian-born Mongolian judoka Saeid Mollaei (white) competes against Uzbekistan's Sharofiddin Boltaboev during the finals of the men's under 81kg category of Tel Aviv Grand Slam 2021 in the city of Tel Aviv, on February 19, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
    Iranian-born Mongolian judoka Saeid Mollaei (white) competes against Uzbekistan's Sharofiddin Boltaboev during the finals of the men's under 81kg category of Tel Aviv Grand Slam 2021 in the city of Tel Aviv, on February 19, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

In a historic achievement, Iranian dissident judoka Saeid Mollaei won a silver medal Friday at the Grand Slam international judo competition held in Tel Aviv.

Mollaei took second place in the under-81kg category after losing to Uzbekistan’s Sahrofiddin Boltaboev.

The Iranian competed under the Mongolian flag after becoming a citizen of the Asian nation.

He fled his home country after being forced to lose a match on purpose to avoid facing Israel’s Sagi Muki in 2019.

Iranian-born Mongolian judoka Saeid Mollaei competes during the finals of the men’s under 81kg category of Tel Aviv Grand Slam 2021 in Tel Aviv, on February 19, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Ahead of his second-place finish, Mollaei said Israel had been “very good to me since I arrived,” CNN reported Friday, citing comments conveyed by the International Judo Federation.

Iranian-born Mongolian judoka Saeid Mollaei (white) competes against Uzbekistan’s Sharofiddin Boltaboev during the finals of the men’s under 81kg category of Tel Aviv Grand Slam 2021 in the city of Tel Aviv, on February 19, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

He said the Israeli judo team “have been very kind. That is something I will never forget.”

He told Israel’s Kan TV: “I’m competing only for Mongolia. I no longer compete for Iran. That part is over for me… I’ve always been a sportsman. I’ve never engaged in politics.”

In this brief clip from the competition venue, he says Todah,” thank you, in Hebrew:

Meanwhile Muki, a world champion, was surprisingly ejected from the competition in the first round on Friday morning.

According to Channel 12, Mollaei told Muki after the competition was over: “Maybe we’ll meet in the finals of the Olympics.”

Another notable achievement Friday was by Israeli Tohar Butbul, who won the bronze in the men’s under-73kg category.

Israel’s Tohar Butbul (white) competes against Romania’s Alceandru Raicu in the men’s under 73kg category of Tel Aviv Grand Slam 2021 in the city of Tel Aviv, on February 19, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Thursday saw several achievements for female Israeli athletes, with Timna Nelson Levy winning a gold medal while Gili Cohen took silver.

“It’s fun to win here in the country, it’s just too bad there isn’t a crowd, because our crowd is the best in the world,” Nelson Levy said after winning gold, thanking the Israel Judo Association for “managing to hold one hell of an event” amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Israeli world champion judoka Sagi Muki, right, and Iranian champion Saeid Mollaei embrace at the Paris Grand Slam, February 10, 2020, in an Instagram photo posted online by Muki. (Instagram screen capture)

Cohen also managed to reach the finals in the under-52 kilogram weight class but was beaten by Brit Chelsie Giles.

Iranian-born Mongolian judoka Saeid Mollaei poses with the silver medal after the finals of the men’s under 81kg category of Tel Aviv Grand Slam 2021 in Tel Aviv, on February 19, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Some 600 athletes from all over the world arrived in Israel to participate in the contest. The seemingly rule-bending event sparked controversy among Israeli health officials as well as among travelers angered by the airport closure for nearly all other cases.

Organizers said it had been impossible to cancel the tournament after Israel committed to hosting it.

Competitors underwent virus tests and remained in closed pods and isolated during the entire event.

Judo is one of Israel’s strongest sports, with Israeli judokas taking home five of the nine Olympic medals won by the country.

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