Iranian judoka seeks asylum after pressure to avoid facing Israeli

Based on an unwritten law, the Islamic Republic bans Iranian athletes from facing Israeli competitors in international competition.

Judo - World Judo Championships - Men's Under 81 kg - Nippon Budokan, Tokyo, Japan - August 28, 2019 - Iran's Saeid Mollaei and Russia's Khasan Khalmurzaev compete.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Judo - World Judo Championships - Men's Under 81 kg - Nippon Budokan, Tokyo, Japan - August 28, 2019 - Iran's Saeid Mollaei and Russia's Khasan Khalmurzaev compete.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei, a hero in the Islamic Republic, has requested asylum in Germany after a recent loss to a Georgian competitor in the 2019 World Championships, according to a Radio Farda report.
Mollaei lost the match to Matthias Casse in one of the biggest judo surprises of the year, showing “obvious indifference” not to face Israeli judoka Sagi Muki in the gold medal match.
Based on an unwritten law, Tehran bans Iranian athletes from facing Israeli competitors in international competition.
Since the early 2000s, Israeli athletes have faced boycotts by countless athletes hailing from Muslim countries – mainly Iran.
The International Judo Federation confirmed the news about Mollaei’s asylum request, according to French news site RMC Sport.
Head of the IJF Marius Vizer told the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun that Mollaei feared he and his family would be subjected to violence by the Iranian regime if he faced Muki, who went on to win the world championship on Wednesday in Tokyo.
The IJF is now offering Mollaei protection – Vizer expressed his hopes that the Iranian judoka will compete in the 2020 Olympics Games as a refugee athlete.
The Olympic Refugee team was established in 2015 and included judokas from the Democratic Republic of Congo – Popole Misenga and Yolande Bukasa Mabika – in the 2016 Games.
In interviews given after he won the world title, Muki refused to speak of Mollaei’s situation and praised him as an outstanding human being and a top athlete.
At the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam in October, the asylum-seeking Mollaei purportedly faked an injury to lose a fight that would have led directly to an encounter with Muki. The Israeli went on to win gold.
Then, at the Paris Grand Slam in February, Mollaei again feigned an injury and lost to Kazakhstan’s Ruslan Mussayev, ranked 209th in the world, in just 20 seconds. Mollaei seemed to easily recover from his injury to win the bronze medal.
Muki won the silver medal, so Mollaei once again had to rely on that same injury to avoid sharing the podium with the Israeli athlete.
Mohammad Mohammadi Barimanlou decided not to even compete in this year’s tournament after it was announced that he would have to face an Israeli competitor in his bracket.
Two years ago Barimanlou did the same thing, retiring from a competition in Germany to avoid facing an Israeli in the European competition.
“It is an open secret in the sports world that Iranian athletes regularly feign injury and throw matches in order to avoid facing Israeli opponents in international competitions as Iranian sports authorities order them to do so,” according to Radio Farda.
“All coaches and the representatives of different teams across the world are sad about Mohammadi Barimanlou’s absence, asking how long such incidents are supposed to continue?” Iranian head coach Vahid Sarlak told Radio Farda. “Removing Mohammadi Barimanlou has had a negative impact on his teammates, including Saeid Mollaei who should defend his world title and gold medal.”
In the quarterfinals, Muki faced Egyptian Mohamed Abdelaal, who refused to shake Muki’s hand after having lost to him. Shaking hands at the end of a judo match is customary. Failing to shake the hand of one’s opponent is a sign of great disrespect.
The biggest question coming into this tournament was whether Muki, ranked second in the world, would face Mollaei in the final, and whether the Iranian judoka would forfeit to not to play an Israeli, as has happened in the past. But the Iranian lost in the semifinals and did not face Muki.
The Iranian judoka lost his battle for the bronze medal. If he had won the medal, he was expected to not show up for the medal ceremony so as not to stand on the podium alongside Muki.
“It is a non-negotiable principle that Iranian athletes must refrain from competition with Israelis,” said the former commander of the Basij Resistance Force General Gholamhossein Gheibparvar on Iranian state-run television, according to Radio Farda, adding that supporters who favor Iranian athletes facing Israeli competitors in competition is “testing the waters for establishing relations with Israel. This is not something that one can test and see if the result is positive, then take further steps. No further steps will be taken, because we will break their legs as soon as they take their first step [toward Israel].”
In July, President of the Iran National Olympic Committee Syed Reza Salehi Amiri said Iranian athletes will not compete against Israeli athletes, despite Iran claiming in a letter addressed to the IJF that things might change.
“Refraining from participating in competitions with athletes of the Zionist regime is an issue of the Muslim world, and athletes from 20 countries refrain from doing so. I said that we are acting within the framework of the Iranian regime’s policy – and for this reason, we are not competing with athletes of the Zionist regime,” Amiri said.
The IJF said in a letter to Iran that: “The international judo community witnessed several times a disturbing phenomenon, which involves the sudden ‘injury’ or failure of weigh-in of Iranian athletes... [because of] the possible obligation of the given athletes to compete against certain countries.”
In the same letter, the federation set a March 15 deadline for the Iranian government to present to “The International Judo Federation... a governmental letter which guarantees that all athletes from Iran will compete in IJF competitions, regardless of the nationality of the athletes they oppose, and that they will participate in the medal ceremonies, regardless of the nationality of those who share the podium with them.”
The Iranian response to the letter was published by the IJF on March 11, where it claimed that it would, “fully respect the Olympic Charter and its non-discrimination principle.” The Islamic Republic also said that they were negotiating with parliament to “identify the proper legal resolutions.”
The Netanya-born Muki won the gold medal at the Judo World Championships in Tokyo on Wednesday – the first time an Israeli male judoka has received this honor.
The Israeli sang along from his perch on the podium as “Hatikvah” played in Tokyo and the Israeli flag waved.
On his way to the top, Muki, 27, faced six opponents, gaining the upper hand on all of them, winning the gold medal in the under 81 kg. category.
This is Muki’s first medal at the World Championships, having won the European gold medal in 2015 and again in 2018. He also finished fifth in the international competition in Baku, Azerbaijan in 2016.
Muki showed impressive fighting abilities in Wednesday’s tournament, having beaten most of his opponents by ippon (the highest score a fighter can achieve in Japanese martial arts), including in a fight that lasted merely 25 seconds.
Alon Einhorn contributed to this report.