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Israeli judoka makes ‘friend for life’ with Iran champ who fled country

Israeli judoka Sagi Muki posted a photo to Instagram Monday showing him embracing former Iranian champion Saeid Mollaei, who fled to Berlin following the World Championships in Tokyo last summer after the Iranian government ordered him to lose bouts in order to avoid competing against an Israeli.

Muki and Mollaei are now at the Paris Grand Slam tournament, where their very public friendship in the wake of last year’s events was on display.
“Friend for life!!!” reads the caption to Muki’s Instagram photo. “Tag Israel and Iran people for peace!” he urges his followers on the photo-based social network.

Within a day the photo has garnered over 10,000 “likes.” Muki tagged it with “#israel #iran #love #peace,” and wrote, “I met him at Grand Slam Paris. Two world champions but before that two good friends…”

The photo was praised by the host organization of the Paris Grand Slam, the European Judo Union, which responded on Instagram with the hashtag “#judomorethansport.”

Speaking to Channel 12 on Tuesday, Muki said Mollaei’s falling out with the Iranian government had left him appreciating Israel and Israelis.

“I hope that he will come to Israel. I know he really loves Israel and Israelis. And he really appreciated how our people have welcomed him with such a big embrace,” Muki said.

Mollaei was granted refugee status in Germany after openly challenging his government. He told International Judo Federation officials last year that he was afraid to return home.

The IJF said Mollaei had been pressured to lose by Iranian deputy sports minister Davar Zani. He was also reportedly pressured to bow out by Iranian Olympic Committee president Reza Salehi Amiri, who told him minutes before his semifinal match that Iranian security services were at his parents’ house in Tehran.

Mollaei, who was on track to face Muki in the finals of the men’s under-81 kilogram class, told the IJF that he bowed to the pressure and deliberately lost to Belgium’s Matthias Casse in the semifinals to avoid having to face the Israeli athlete, who ended up winning gold.

Mollaei competed in Paris this week under the Mongolian flag.

Iran does not recognize Israel and Iranian passports remind holders in bold red they are “not entitled to travel to occupied Palestine.”

Last October, the IJF announced a decision to confirm a provisional ban on Iran over its refusal to allow its fighters to face Israeli judokas.