The Iranian-born world champion judo fighter Saeid Mollaei is fearing for his life and his family’s safety in Iran after refusing Tehran’s demands that he withdraw from a tournament to avoid fighting against an Israeli opponent. He has defected to Berlin and says he will no longer compete for Iran.
CBN Mollaei competed in the Judo World Championships in Tokyo last week to defend his title in the under-81 kilogram weight class. He was hoping to come out on top and qualify for the 2020 summer Olympic games but a phone call from an Iranian leader changed everything.
Iran’s deputy minister of sport, Davar Zani, ordered Mollaei to forfeit the competition to avoid the possibility of fighting against Israel’s Sagi Muki in the finals. Iranian athletes are prohibited from competing in any sport against Israel and are forced to forfeit matches and even intentionally lose.
The International Judo Federation reports that Mollaei collapsed into tears after Zani threatened the safety of Mollaei and his family. IJF Media reported that national security officers also visited his family in Iran and threatened them.
Mollaei’s mother reportedly called him from Iran moments before his semi-final fight against Belgium’s Matthias Casse and begged him to lose the round so that he would not have to fight the Israeli, bow to him or stand next to him on the winners’ platform.
Mollaei ignored the threats and continued fighting but never got a chance to compete against Muki because he was defeated by Belgium’s Mattias Casse and finished in fifth place. Meanwhile, Muki went on to win the world title.
Mollaei said Tehran’s threats weighed heavy on him during the competition.
Still, Mollaei later went on to congratulate Muki for becoming Israel’s first male judo athlete to win the world championships.
This is not the first time athletes from Arab nations or Iran have been ordered to pull out or refuse to compete with Israeli athletes in Olympics or other international competitions.
At the 2004 Athens Olympics, then-Iranian world champion Arash Mirasmaeili refused to fight Israeli judoka Ehud Vaks, earning praise back home. At Rio de Janeiro 2016, Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby was sent home after refusing to shake the hand of Israeli Or Sasson following the end of their bout.
Muki Sagi’s Egyptian opponent also refused to shake his hand in this competition after he lost. Sagi hopes to see politics set aside in sports competition.