Iranian judoka 'afraid' to go home after Israel dispute

Iranian judoka 'afraid' to go home after refusing to quit competition to avoid Israeli opponent
3 min read
02 September, 2019
Iranian authorities have been accused of pressuring and intimidating an athlete who refused to pull out of a judo competition to avoid facing an Israeli opponent.
Saeid Mollaei [L] was ordered to pull out of the world championships in Tokyo [Getty]
An Iranian judo world champion says he is afraid to return home after disobeying orders from Tehran to withdraw from the sport's world championships.

Iran's government reportedly ordered Saeid Mollaei to withdraw from the competition in Tokyo in order to avoid a possible match against an Israeli opponent.

The withdrawal order had been delivered by Iran's sports minister, Davar Zani, the International Judo Federation said on Sunday. Mollaei was then called by Iranian Olympic Committee president Reza Salehi Amiri, who said security services were at his parents' house, the IJF said.

Mollaei was the defending champion and could have faced Israeli athlete Sagi Muki in the final. They were the two top-ranked athletes in their class prior to the world championships. Mollaei said he was ordered to withdraw ahead of a preliminary bout against a Russian so it didn't appear to be a boycott of Israel.

Mollaei kept competing but eventually lost in the semifinals and did not have to face Muki, who won gold and later called Mollaei "an inspiration."

"I want to compete wherever I can," Mollaei said in a statement from the IJF. "I live in a country whose law does not permit me to. We have no choice, all athletes must comply with it. All I did today was for my life, for a new life.

Israeli athlete Sagi Muki went on to win gold [Getty]

"I need help. Even if the authorities of my country told me that I can go back without any problems, I am afraid."

The IJF said it would help Mollaei prepare for next year's Olympics, also in Tokyo. If Iran refuses to enter him, one option could be the International Olympic Committee-backed team of refugee athletes.

Iranian sports teams have for several decades had a policy of not competing against Israelis, which the country does not recognise. The IJF has said Iranians have thrown matches and used "questionable injuries" to avoid competing against Israelis.

Mollaei's case comes four months after judo officials hailed a breakthrough in relations with Iran, publishing a letter signed by Salehi Amiri pledging to "fully respect the Olympic charter and its non-discrimination principle."

On Saturday, Iranian Sports Minister Masoud Soltanifar accused the IJF of trying to "create problems" with Mollaei, the IRNA news agency reported. He said Iran will send a protest letter to the IOC.

Iranian team manager Majid Zareian also criticized the IJF, saying "everything was set in advance to put Mollaei against a participant from (Israel)."

"They did not allow me to be present next to my athlete in exercise salon," Zareian said. "After the competitions they changed hotel of Mollaei without my permission, against the regulations."

He denied reports Iranian authorities had put pressure on Mollaei.

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