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Iranian judoka allegedly coerced to avoid fight against Israeli seeks asylum

On Thursday, the chairman of the Israel Judo Association said Mollaei was coerced into throwing his semifinal battle against Belgium’s Matthias Casse a day earlier at the World Judo Championship in Tokyo in order to avoid facing Israel’s Sagi Muki in the final. Muki went on to win the championship, becoming the first Israeli man to win a World Championship gold.

IJA head Moshe Ponti, speaking to Army Radio on Thursday, said that an hour before Wednesday’s semifinals, the Israeli team heard that Mollaei, ranked No. 1 in the world, “intended to continue the contest, even if he had to face Sagi Muki at the final. We heard he’d asked the head of the Iranian judo association to ensure his family was kept safe.”

At the semifinals Mollaei was paired with Casse and Muki faced Egyptian Mohamed Abdelaal. After Muki defeated Abdelaal (the Egyptian’s refusal to shake Muki’s hand caused further controversy), it became clear that if Mollaei defeated the Belgian he would face off against the Israeli for the gold.

“From what we understand, within a short time Iranian intelligence officials came both to his home in Iran and to the judo arena and warned him,” Ponti said.

“I don’t know what happened there, but eventually he lost both battles,” Ponti said, referring to the fight against Casse and the subsequent fight for the bronze against Luka Maisuradze of Georgia. “He didn’t make it to the final with Sagi and he didn’t make it to the podium.”

The world champion Muki on Wednesday said Mollaei was an “excellent” sportsman, while Israel’s team coach Oren Smadja said he was “a terrific guy.”

Header image: Luka Maisuradze of Georgia, top, competes against Saeid Mollaei of Iran during a men’s -81 kilogram bronze medal match of the World Judo Championships in Tokyo, August 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)