Olympic Judo competitor Saeid Mollaei shouted out Israel after winning the silver medal in the men’s 81kg Judo event, a nod to his difficult past and the obstacles he overcame to even be able to compete in this year’s Tokyo Olympics.
“Thank you to Israel for all the good energy -– this medal is dedicated to you as well and I hope Israeli is happy with this victory, todah,” Mollaei told Israeli news outlet Channel 5 Sports after winning the silver medal.
Mollaei is originally from Iran, where he was a citizen until 2019. That same year Mollaei exposed that Iranian authorities had ordered him to throw a match and intentionally lose a semi-final match in the 2019 Tokyo World Championships. The Iranian government feared Mollaei would face off against Israeli champion Sagi Muki and lose, which would make Iran look bad on the world stage.
The whole situation eventually came to light as the Judoka began talking about it, despite threats to his safety. This led to the International Judo Federation banning Iran from any future competitions in the World Championships.
Mollaei refused to forfeit the match and was then pushed out of Iran. He competed briefly as a German under a two-year visa, then accepted an offer of citizenship from Mongolian President Khaltmaagiin Battulga in 2019.
What a story!
An Iranian athlete was told by Tehran to forfeit a 2019 match so he wouldn’t have to face an Israeli. He refused & fled for his life. Germany gave him refuge. Mongolia put him on its 2020 team. He just won silver — and dedicated it to Israel.https://t.co/Deial7ZCNO
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In a 2019 interview, Saeid Mollaei hinted ‘I will probably never return to Iran’.
He said, “After having become the world champion in Baku in 2018, I was No. 1 in the world rankings for an entire year, and I felt that I could do it again this year. We had a few problems before we departed and even on the day of my competition. I had to get permission before every fight. The orders came from Iran and went to the coach of the team. I had to comply with the orders. Not only I, but the whole world knows what sort of consequences there would have been had I refused. So I complied with the law to avoid any problems for myself or my family. Everyone saw how I performed, to make sure that it was 100-percent certain that I would lose – and there is film footage to back this up. I put on a show; I just wanted the fight to end.
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You speak of this rule in Iran that prohibits the country’s athletes from competing against Israelis. However, there is no written law against this …
“It is not a written law but it has existed for many years and it has been applied by high-ranking officials. Nobody can change this law. I also lost bouts at the Grand Slam in Abu Dhabi [Mollaei finished fifth in the October 2018 tournament, Sagu Muki of Israel finished first] and didn’t turn up for the bronze medal bout to avoid standing on the podium beside an Israeli. It was similar at the Masters in China and at the Grand Slam in Paris, where I won the bronze medal. There I had to put on a bit of a show, grabbing my foot as if I was injured – and I was taken to hospital. I did so to avoid the Israeli during the medal ceremony.”
How does it feel for a competitive athlete like yourself to have to deliberately lose a bout – despite being within touching distance of your goal?
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I could have won my third World Championship medal [after bronze in 2017 and gold in 2018]. This is a burden that is hard for me to bear. I will never forget the World Championships in Tokyo as long as I live. All of the discussions I had afterwards made it clear to me that I had to start a new life.
The interview conducted by Farid Ashrafian and Chuck Penfold continued.
A few days ago a young Iranian woman set herself on fire in front of a courthouse after being handed a prison sentence for trying to enter a soccer stadium. She later died of her injuries. What do you make of this?
I heard about this through the media and it made me very sad. I asked myself why such things only happen in my country. Aren’t we human beings? Aren’t women human beings? Why do women in our country have so many problems? Why is there no freedom? I think that all of these people who forbid from people enjoying their lives will have to answer for it, before God or before their own conscience.
I would like to ask the world to help us. A lot of our athletes are forced to deal with these matters – and their suffering is growing by the day. Many athletes have left their country and left their personal lives there behind to pursue their dreams. It’s very difficult. All that remains is sadness and melancholy.
Are you still worried about your family? Are you worried that something could happen so them if you return to Iran?
Under this [political] system I will probably never return to Iran. Following the World Championships I set a goal of winning the title at the Olympic Games. This may be very difficult, but this is my dream. I will do everything in my power to bring my family the joy of an Olympic medal. It is very difficult for me not to be able to see my parents and my friends, but I just have to deal with it.
Saeid Mollaei, 27, won the gold medal in the 81-kilogram weight class at the 2018 World Championships in Baku. This was the first time that an Iranian judoka had won a World Championship title in 15 years. In Tokyo in August, he was well on his way to defending his title, but when it became clear that he was on track to face Israel’s Sagi Muki in the final, high-ranking Iranian sports officials instructed him to withdraw. Mollaei fought on but lost his semifinal and the bronze-medal bout. Instead of returning to Iran following the World Championships he traveled to Germany, for which he holds a two-year visa.