Freedom-flavoured silver medal for Iranian-born judoka competing 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 naturalised Mongolian citizen after Iran effectively prohibited him from facing an Israeli opponent in 2019.

Saeid Mollaei had dreamt of gold, but still sported a big smile when he was awarded his silver medal on Tuesday at the Tokyo Games. The Iranian-born and naturalised Mongolian judoka was narrowly defeated in the 81kg final by Japan’s star Takanori Nagase, but claimed victory over his own destiny.

Mollaei was world champion in 2018 when he competed for Iran. But during 2019 Judo World Championships held in Tokyo's very same Budokan Hall where the Games are currently taking place, he was ordered by the Iranian Olympic committee to lose in the semi-finals against the Belgian Matthias Casse, to avoid facing Israeli judoka Sagi Muki in the final.

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

“You’re supposed to be brave in life. But a thousand questions went through my head. What will happen to me or my family? So I listened to the order,” Mollaei was quoted by DW. He narrowly lost to Casse, and Muki ended up winning the final.

Mollaei subsequently congratulated the Israeli jodoka on his Instagram feed, raising the hackles of Iranian authorities.

‘A new life’

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

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

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

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

Muki, with whom Mollaei trained for two months in Israel before the Games, also reacted after the medal. “I’m super happy for Saeid,” he told Israeli reporters at a news conference Tuesday. “I know what he’s gone through, and how much he wanted it. He’s a very close friend of mine, and I’m so happy that he succeeded in achieving his dream. 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 recognise Israel and its athletes usually refuse to face Israeli opponents, either by forfeiting the match or simply not participating.

One of the most famous cases was current Iranian judo federation president Arash Miresmaeili, a two-time judo world champion who showed up overweight for his bout against an Israeli at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and was disqualified.

During the Tokyo Games, the Algerian judoka Fethi Nourine withdrew in order to avoid facing an Israeli opponent, explaining his decision was due to his support for “the Palestinian cause”. He was first scheduled to face Sudan's Mohamed Abdalrasool on Monday in the first round, before fighting Israeli Tohar Butbul in the next round. He has since been suspended by the International Judo Federation and his accreditation has been withdrawn.

This article was translated and adapted from the original in French.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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