Free the athletes

The Iranian National Olympic Committee pressured Mollaei over the phone to lose his semi-final bout and avoid having to face an Israeli, Sagi Muki, in the finals – which was very possible.

Jpost editorial logo  (photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
Jpost editorial logo
(photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
Our hearts go out to Saeid Mollaei, the Iranian judoka who lost his semi-final match last week in the World Judo Championships in Japan.
Well, not exactly “lost” – Mollaei was ordered to make like Marlon Brando in the classic film On the Waterfront: a fighter told to throw a fight.
The Iranian National Olympic Committee pressured Mollaei over the phone to lose his semi-final bout and avoid having to face an Israeli, Sagi Muki, in the finals – which was very possible, given that Mollaei was the defending champion in the under-81 kg. category.
“I could have been the world champion,” Mollaei said in an interview with the International Judo Federation (IJF), echoing Brando’s “I coudda been a contender.”
Except this isn’t like On the Waterfront. That fight was thrown because the mafia put down gambling money on Brando’s opponent. This fight was thrown because Muki is Israeli.
Even before Mollaei “took a dive” in his semi-final bout, there was another blatant sign at the World Judo Championships of ostracizing Israelis: in the quarterfinals, Muki faced Egyptian Mohamed Abdelaal, who, after losing the match, refused to shake Muki’s hand.
“I have never spoken to [Abdelaal] and it’s too bad he turned his back to me because he also turned his back on the sport,” said Muki, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. “Judo is all about honor and those types of positive qualities. This is how I was raised and brought up, no matter who the rival is or where they are from. No matter what happened, I felt more sad than frustrated as I was really hoping he would shake my hand, and we could show the power of sport.”
Not shaking the hand of one’s opponent – a customary gesture at the end of every judo match – is a sign of great disrespect. Indeed it is. Not just to the sport of judo, but to every sport, and to every participant.
This is not the first time Iranian athletes and other countries have refused to compete against Israelis. It is way past time to stop all this ridiculousness, like when countries don’t allow Israel to complete under its flag or allow “Hatikva” to be played, and the international community does nothing about it.
Why isn’t more stringent action being taken to uphold those rules of sporting competition, to force countries to play in the spirit of all sports – one based on the values of ethics and fair-play?
Failure to uphold promises to respect the rules makes a mockery of that spirit. Iran forced Mollaei to throw a match even though the International Judo Federation and the National Olympic Committee of Iran reached an agreement in May, in which Tehran agreed to “fully respect the Olympic Charter and its nondiscrimination principle,” thus paving the way for Iranian athletes to compete against Israeli athletes.
In a video that went viral, Mollaei can be seen backstage in tears, after taking the phone call from Iran telling him to quit. He flew to Germany afterward, now afraid to return to Iran.
Marius Vizer, head of the International Judo Federation, is trying to do something about it. As a gesture of support that should be given full praise, the IJF changed its Twitter name this week to #ISupportMollaei. And the International Olympic Committee is expected to allow Mollaei to compete in the Olympics under the Olympic flag.
In his interview with the Post, Muki said he has two dreams: “One is to win the gold medal at the Olympics. But I also dream to compete against Mollaei – and it doesn’t matter who wins. I want to shake his hand, give him a hug. This way, we will not only show honor for each other, but together we can show that sport is above everything else.”
After Muki won the gold and posted it on Instagram, Mollaei wrote: “Congratulations champion.”
“Thank you,” responded Muki. “You are an inspiration as a person and as an athlete.”
This week, the Israel Judo Association extended an invitation to the Iranian athlete to come compete at the Tel Aviv Grand Prix 2019 in January. What an honor and pleasure it would be for Israel to host this athlete, and for Muki to fulfill his dream.