Silver medal with taste of freedom for Iranian-born judoka who competes for Mongolia

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Saeid Mollaei, an Iranian-born judoka now competing for Mongolia, has won the silver medal for his sport at the Tokyo Games. Mollaei left his country and became a naturalized Mongolian citizen after Iran effectively banned him from confronting an Israeli opponent in 2019.

Saeid Mollaei had dreamed of gold, but still had a big smile when he received his silver medal at the Tokyo Games on Tuesday. The Iranian-born and naturalized Mongolian judoka was narrowly beaten by Japanese star Takanori Nagase in the 81kg final, but claimed victory over his own fate.

Mollaei became world champion in 2018 when he competed for Iran. But at the 2019 Judo World Championships, held in the same Budokan Hall in Tokyo where the Games are currently taking place, he was ordered by the Iranian Olympic Committee to lose in the semifinals to Belgian Matthias Casse, in order to avoid facing the Israeli judoka Sagi Muki had to be the last.

An employee of the Iranian embassy approached Mollaei in the warm-up hall before the fight and told him that security forces were at his parents’ home, according to a report by Deutsche Welle.

‘You should be brave in life. But a thousand questions ran through my head. What will happen to me or my family? So I listened to the order,” Mollaei was quoted as saying by DW. He narrowly lost to Casse and Muki eventually won the final.

Mollaei then congratulated the Israeli jodoka on his Instagram feed, punching the Iranian authorities in the neck.

‘A new life’

Mollaei left Iran for Germany and fought for the refugee team before becoming the Mongolian citizen.

In February 2021, he fought in Israel and met Muki, who called him his “brother”.

“I left everything behind and started a new life,” said Mollaei after his narrow defeat to Nagase in Tokyo.

“I have a great team of athletes. The Mongols are nice, very warm and I am very happy to have won this medal for Mongolia and the Mongolian people.”

Muki, with whom Mollaei trained in Israel for two months before the Games, also reacted after the medal. “I’m super happy for Saeid,” he told Israeli reporters at a press conference on Tuesday. “I know what he went through and how badly he wanted it. He is a very good friend of mine and I am so happy that he succeeded in making his dream come true. He deserves it – his journey is incredibly inspiring.”

So inspiring, in fact, that MGM/UA Television and Israel’s Tadmor Entertainment are preparing a television series based on the lives of the two world champions, Muki announced on his Instagram account.

Iran does not recognize Israel and its athletes usually refuse to face Israeli opponents, either by forfeiting the competition or simply not participating.

One of the most famous cases was current president of the Iranian Judo Federation Arash Miresmaeili, a two-time world judo champion who became overweight for his fight against an Israeli at the 2004 Athens Olympics and was disqualified.

During the Tokyo Games, Algerian judoka Fethi Nourine withdrew to avoid an Israeli opponent, explaining that his decision was due to his support for “the Palestinian cause”. He would first have to face Sudanese Mohamed Abdalrasool in the first round on Monday, before beating Israeli Tohar Butbul in the next round. He has since been suspended by the International Judo Federation and his accreditation revoked.

This article has been translated and adapted from the original in French.

( Jowharwith AFP)