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Exiled Iranian judoka finally faces Israeli competitor, and wins

Iranian dissident judoka Saeid Mollaei, who left the Islamic Republic after revealing he was ordered to lose matches and withdraw from competitions to avoid facing Israelis, has finally achieved his dream, competing Wednesday against an Israeli — and winning.

Mollaei, who now competes for Mongolia, faced Israeli challenger Din Yaacov Gemer in an under 81-kilogram contest as part of the World Judo Championships currently being held in Hungary.

The bout ended with a decisive ippon for Mollaei who succeeded in throwing Gemer to the floor.

Though Mollaei went up against an Israeli, it was not against his chief rival — and now friend — Israeli judoka Sagi Muki. Muki was not participating in the competition which opened a space for Gemer to enter instead.

Mollaei’s journey from Iran began when he was ordered by Iranian authorities to drop out of a 2019 match against Israel’s Muki because the athlete was representing the Jewish state.

The International Olympic Committee last year approved Mollaei’s switch to compete for Mongolia. The IOC said the change did not need permission from Iranian Olympic officials because the judoka was technically a refugee.

Earlier this year, Mollaei traveled to Israel to compete in a Judo Grand Slam competition held in Tel Aviv.

While in the Jewish state, he told Israel’s Kan TV: “I’m competing only for Mongolia. I no longer compete for Iran. That part is over for me… I’ve always been a sportsman. I’ve never engaged in politics.”

Winning the silver medal at the competition, Mollaei said Israel had been “very kind. That is something I will never forget.”

In April, International Judo Federation issued a four-year ban against the Iranian Judo Federation over Tehran’s demands that its athletes refuse to face Israeli opponents.

The ban was backdated to begin in September 2019, when Mollaei left the Iranian team during the World Championship in Tokyo.

Mollaei first inquired with the IJF about changing nationality in November 2018, a month prior to the judoka losing in his first-round match to a Japanese athlete at the Guangzhou World Masters when he once again found himself in the same pool as Muki.

Mollaei then lost at the Paris Grand Slam in February 2019 when on course to face Muki, before winning a bronze medal. He did not attend the medal ceremony.

The incident in Tokyo in 2019 appeared to be the last straw. Mollaei refused to return to Iran and instead sought asylum in Germany.

Source: TOI