Israel’s Gili Cohen celebrates winning silver in judo Grand Slam

Former Iranian Mollaei thrilled to take part as Mongolian in the competition hosted by Tel Aviv.

 ISRAELI JUDOKA Gili Cohen celebrates after winning a silver medal yesterday in the <52 kg division at the Tel Aviv Grand Slam to secure her spot in the Olympics. (photo credit: ISRAEL JUDO ASSOCIATION)
ISRAELI JUDOKA Gili Cohen celebrates after winning a silver medal yesterday in the <52 kg division at the Tel Aviv Grand Slam to secure her spot in the Olympics.
The eyes of the judo world will be on Israel this weekend as the International Judo Federation’s Tel Aviv Grand Slam 2021 kicks off the year ahead of the Japan Olympics slated later this summer.
Over 400 judokas from 60 countries have descended on the Holy Land for the event that runs from February 18-20 at the Drive-In Arena in north Tel Aviv.
Host Israel will sport the largest contingent of athletes, with 37 split up between 26 men and 11 women, as the likes of the 2019 World Champion Sagi Muki, 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Ori Sasson and rising star Peter Paltchik will participate along with Gefen Primo, Gili Cohen and Timna Nelson Levy.
In addition to the veterans, Under-23 European Champion Inbar Lanir will also be taking part in the competition.
On Thursday, Cohen notched a silver medal in the under-52 kilogram event, securing her spot in the Olympics.
The 29-year-old Israel, who in 2013 won the silver medal at the European U23s was a bronze medalist at the 2014 European Judo Championships, fell to Britain’s Chelsie Giles.
“I am disappointed with the loss in the final, but it is clear that I am happy to be on the podium and secure a place in the Olympics,” said Cohen said immediately after the fight.  “It has been a difficult and challenging year. I will do my best to bring a medal from Tokyo as well.”  
On Friday, it was reported that Israel had won another medal in the tournament with 27-year-old Israeli judoka Tohar Butbul beating seasoned Georgian judoka Lasha Shavdatuashvili and winning a bronze medal in the under-73 kilogram event.
However, the big story of the tournament is the arrival of the 2018 World Champion, Iranian Saied Mollaei, who is now representing Mongolia.
Mollaei made headlines worldwide late in the summer of 2019 when he left the Iranian team at the 2019 World Championships in Tokyo, Japan, where he was forced by the Iranian Judo Federation to intentionally lose in order not to face Israeli Muki, the eventual winner of that tournament.
With the help of the International Judo Federation President Marius Vizer and Israel Judo Association Chairman Moshe Ponti, Mollaei was then granted asylum by Germany. A few months later, the Mongolia President Khaltmaagiin Battulga, who is also the head of the country’s judo federation, offered Mollaei citizenship which was accepted.
During those precarious few months, Muki and Mollaei’s friendship was cemented.
Mollaei landed in Israel on one of a number of special charter flights that brought the athletes into the country earlier in the week as each sportsperson then had to undergo COVID-19 tests to ensure that there would be no spread of the virus.
The Israeli contingent, which has all been vaccinated with two shots, must still undergo the tests as well. The judokas are not permitted to leave their base at the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv and can only travel between the hotel and arena during their stay in the country.
In a unique twist, Oren Smadja, a 1992 Olympic bronze medalist and current Israeli judo coach, has set Mollaei up to train with Eshed Winkler, an up-and-coming Sabra, during his stay in Israel as he prepares for the competition. In fact, the Iranian has been so pleased with his time so far in Israel that he is considering training in the Holy Land ahead of the Summer Olympics.
Mollaei was excited to land in Israel for this opportunity and spoke about taking part in the Tel Aviv Grand Slam.
“I am thrilled to have come for the tournament. I want to thank everyone and the organizers of the event. Everything in Israel has been great so far and I want to thank all of the Israelis and my friends.
“Ten years ago, even four, if someone would have asked me about the chance to compete in Israel, everyone would have known the answer. Of course I would have said that this is impossible. When I landed at Ben-Gurion Airport I said to my coach, ‘we are in Israel. It’s not a dream.’”
Ponti also talked about the chance to welcome the 29-year-old former Iranian judoka.
“When I see Saied Mollaei and his coach, I am just so excited,” said Ponti. “This is something that hasn’t happened to me in such a long time. It’s a feeling like no other and something that is historic that Mollaei, such a brave and terrific person, is here. Everyone loves him as does the State of Israel as he is a true hero and a real competitor.
“He’s a world champion that the entire world knows and there are just no words as we make history between Saied from Iran and me from Israel. This is the true sense of bringing people together and hopefully there will be peace between the two nations.”
However, Ponti’s sentiments weren’t shared by the head of the Iranian Judo Association, Arash Miresmaeili, who had some choice words for Mollaei.
“This isn’t something to be proud of, but a disgrace that will follow Saied Mollaei for the rest of his life. I want to apologize to the Iranian nation for what he has done and I am ashamed that this foolish athlete looks at his own interests, travelled to Tel Aviv and is in fact proud of that.
“Saied, you have turned your back on your homeland for some dollars or medals. This is a huge embarrassment that you are competing under the Mongolian flag while 90,000 Iranian judokas have been suspended to compete in all competitions. Mollaei turned this into a political story as we in Iran aren’t trying to do such a thing. Media who are anti-Iran are covering his trip in great detail as he has sold out his homeland solely for his own personal interests.”
Interestingly, Muki and Mollaei – who both compete at -81kg – can face one another in the final after the draw was made setting up what could be a classic duel.
With the added media presence focusing on the Tel Aviv Grand Slam, Minister of Culture and Sports Chili Tropper as well as the honorary president of the event, Sylvan Adams, came out in full force about the importance of the competition being held in Israel despite the pale of the coronavirus and with a small number of positive tests.
“For the first time, a Grand Slam Judo Competition has come to Israel,” began Tropper. “It is a great privilege for the country and it is exciting that we were chosen to host the tournament, especially during this period. I’m glad that despite all the challenges, we were able to allow the tournament to take place, while maintaining the health of all participants.”
Adams, who has always looked to improve Israel’s position in the world through international cultural, sporting and innovative events such as the Giro d’Italia and the Argentina/Uruguay exhibition soccer game said: “For the first time at its new prestigious level, the Israelis have already proven themselves winners and I hope our judokas will draw more strength from the home field in the upcoming competition.
“I thank the World Judo Association for expressing confidence in Israel as a world leader in the vaccine revolution and for its ability to raise the infrastructure of international sporting events at the highest level. I sincerely hope that hosting the competition will be another significant step back to a normal life in Israel and around the world.”
Tobias Siegal contributed to this report.