An Iranian judo world champion has been pictured posing with his Israeli rival as he is competing in an international contest in Tel Aviv against the wishes of Tehran.
The former gold medallist, who has said he fears for his life if he returns home, is representing Mongolia in the two-day International Judi Federation (IJF) Grand Slam in Tel Aviv starting from Thursday.
Iran reacted with disdain at the news, slamming Mollaei’s participation in the games as ‘a stain of shame on your forehead.’
Muki (pictured right), who Mollaei (left) says he was told to avoid competing against in Tokyo, posted an image on social media Monday of the two of them with their arms around each other, captioned ‘Welcome Brother,’ and featuring Israeli, Iranian and Mongolian flags
Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has prohibited any sporting events with its mortal enemy, Israel.
During the 2019 world champions in Tokyo, Mollaei fought on despite orders from the Iranian deputy sports minister Mohammad Resa Davarzani.
The Iranian former gold medalist could have fought Israeli contender Saki Mugi in the final, had he not been defeated by Belgium’s Matthias Casse in the semis.
Muki later won the gold and called Mollaei, ‘an inspiration.’
Despite coronavirus restrictions, Israel is hosting an international judo tournament that begins in Tel Aviv on Thursday, featuring some 600 athletes from 63 countries.
Muki, who Mollaei says he was told to avoid competing against in Tokyo, posted an image on social media Monday of the two of them with their arms around each other, captioned ‘Welcome Brother,’ and featuring Israeli, Iranian and Mongolian flags.
Saeid Mollaei defected to Germany after he disobeyed a direct order from Iran’s minister to withdraw from the 2019 Judo World Championships in Japan to avoid fighting an Israeli. He is pictured during the 2019 Judo World Championships in Tokyo, Japan
A short video released by the Israel Judo Association showed its president Moshe Ponte hugging Mollaei upon his arrival at Ben Gurion airport on Monday.
‘This is a great message to the world,’ the Israeli judoka told local radio. ‘This is something that can even bring Iran closer to Israel. It simply shows how sports can bring together people and break boundaries.’
Israel’s Sport 1 website celebrated Mollaei’s arrival for the contest as ‘historic’ in a banner homepage headline.
The influential Ynet site said it was ‘courageous’ and ‘heroic’ for an athlete born in arch foe nation Iran to compete on Israeli territory.
Mollaei is heard saying he was ‘pleased to be here’.
In October 2019, the International Judo Federation said it had banned Iran from international competition over the country’s refusal to allow its fighters to face Israeli opponents.
Iran said the ban was based on ‘false claims’.
Iran’s Saeid Mollaei can be seen reacting during the semi-final against Belgium’s Matthias Casse in the men’s under 81kg category at the 2019 Judo World Championships in Japan. He was knocked out in the semi-finals before he could have faced Israeli, Sagi Muki
Mollaei was granted refugee status by Germany following the Tokyo games and has been allowed to compete under the Mongolian flag the by International Olympic Committee (IOC) since last March
He has admitted that he was ‘afraid of what might happen to my family and to myself’ if he goes back to his home country.
In response to Mollaei’s participation in the Tel Aviv games, president of the Iranian Judo Federation Arash Miresmaeili expressed regret that ‘a foolish athlete’ and ‘hollow champion who only thinks of his personal interests has gone to Tel Aviv and is proud of it’.
‘This is not an honour but a stain of shame on your forehead that will stay with you forever, because you have turned your back on the ideals of the system, on your homeland, and are proud of it,’ Miresmaeili said in a Tuesday statement, addressing Mollaei.
The judo tournament during the coronavirus pandemic has stirred controversy, with Israel’s airport still closed to all but non-emergency travel.
Thousands of Israelis remain stranded abroad by the travel restrictions, with some voicing outrage in local media that hundreds of foreign athletes have been allowed into the country.