Saeid Mollaei, 27, won a gold medal at the judo World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 2018. Last month he was attempted to defend that medal, in the -81 kg category, at the 2019 World Championships in Tokyo.
Unfortunately for Mollaei he was unable to clinch gold this time around, losing in the semi-finals to Matthias Casse of Belgium. But any stress over failing to medal at the tournament has been overshadowed by Mollaei’s fears that it now not safe for him to return home to Iran (per CNN Sports).
According to Mollaei his reason to fear going home has nothing to do with his loss to Casse, but is instead down to his refusal to withdraw from the tournament altogether. Mollaei claims that his coach received two calls from Iranian authorities (one from the Sport Minister and another from a member of the National Olympic Committee), while he was competing in the opening rounds, instructing him to withdraw from the competition.
It has been alleged that one of those phone calls revealed to Mollaei’s team that Iranian National Security had visited his parents’ house.
Mollaei has stated that the reason these officials wanted him out of the tournament was because there was a possibility he could have been drawn against Sagi Muki, an Israeli, in the final.
The athlete refused the requests, competing against Casse knowing there was a possibility it could lead to a match with Muki. Even though Mollaei and Muki never met on the mat, the Iranian still fears there will be repercussions.
Mollaei made his claims in an interview with the International Judo Federation (IJF). In that interview he said, “I need help. Even if the authorities of my country told me that I can go back without any problems, I am afraid. I am afraid of what might happen to my family and to myself.”
Since that interview it has been reported that Mollaei has sought asylum in Germany.
This is not the first incident in recent memory that featured controversy around an Iranian athlete and the possibility of them facing an Israeli opponent. In 2017 Alireza Karimi, an Iranian wrestler, was competing at the freestyle wrestling U-23 World Championships in Poland when he received similar instructions to Mollaei.
In a match with Alikhan Zhabrailov, who is Russian, Karimi was up 3-2 with just a minute left. It’s then that Karimi’s coaches began ordering him to lose the match. Karimi ignored them, so the coaches created a timeout so they could talk to their wrestler. When the contest resumed, Karimi let his opponent take him down and roll him over five times. That was enough to make sure Karimi lost the bout 14-3.
Karimi’s coaches commanded him to lose because they had noticed that Israeli wrestler Uri Kalashnikov had just won his match, meaning he would face the winner of Karimi and Zhabrailov.
Iranian wrestler Alireza Karimi about to beat Russian, but will have to face Israeli next round. His coach his calling him from the sidelines, telling him to “lose.” Iran forbids its athletes to play Israeli’s. Iranian wrestler gives up. pic.twitter.com/nX9KHaH8Jn— Thomas Erdbrink (@ThomasErdbrink) November 27, 2017
Despite losing in this match, Karimi had a chance to win a bronze medal in the repechage stage of the tournament. However, he would have had to face the Israeli Kalashnikov, who had lost in the later rounds of the competition. Karimi forfeited the match.
This happened in in 2016, too, when Iranian wrestler Seyedmehdi Hashemijouybari forfeited his match at the Cadet World Championships to avoid an Israeli opponent. Similar incidents occurred at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and and Athens Olympics in 2004.
Iran’s foreign policy towards Israel is responsible for these athletes being under pressure to avoid competing against Israelis at all cost. Iran has refused to recognize Israel as a state since 1979’s Iranian Revolution.
It has been interpreted that Iran wants to avoid having Iranian athletes on the same stage as Israeli athletes because it would undercut their beliefs and messaging that Israel is illegitimate.
In this latest chapter of Iran’s conflict with Israel spreading into sports, Mollaei is finding plenty of support. The IJF changed their twitter account name to “#ISupportMolleai” and IJF President Marius Vizer has publicly supported Mollaei.
“Judo is a sport based on values and principles, all action that we take are first of all to protect and for the interest of the athletes while staying true to the ideals of Judo,” said Vizer to Agence France-Presse.
“The Judo family is fully supporting our athletes and striving to set an example for humanity with the target of displaying integrity and respect. We are competing for a better World.”