Saeid Mollaei should have been focusing on the defence of his World Judo Championship title. Instead, the Iranian judoka was fretting about his safety and his family’s safety.
While competing in Tokyo, Mollaei claims his coach received two calls from the Iranian authorities instructing him to withdraw his fighter from the tournament to avoid the possibility of meeting Israeli judoka Sagi Muki in the final.
The 27-year-old Mollaei ignored the warnings, but despite losing in the last four he fears repercussions back home in Iran. For years, Iranian athletes have been prohibited from competing against Israelis.
“I need help,” Mollaei said in an interview with International Judo Federation (IJF).
“Even if the authorities of my country told me that I can go back without any problems, I am afraid. I am afraid of what might happen to my family and to myself.
“Today, the National Olympic Committee of Iran and the Sport Minister told me to not compete, that I had to comply with the law. I am a fighter.
“I want to compete wherever I can. I live in a country whose law does not permit me to. We have no choice, all athletes must comply with it. All I did today was for my life, for a new life.”
Mollaei and Muki’s potential fight in the World Judo Championships should have been an historic opportunity.
Iran’s stance looked to have changed in May when the IJF received a letter from its National Olympic Committee claiming it would “fully respect” the Olympic charter, suggesting the path was clear for Iranian athletes to compete against those from Israel.
But after progressing through the opening two rounds of the World Championships with relative ease, Mollaei told the IJF his coach received a call from the Iranian first deputy minister of sport Davar Zani. He opted to fight on, and beat Russia’s Olympic champion Khasan Khalmurzaev.
Ahead of his semifinal clash with eventual champion Matthias Casse of Belgium, Mollaei says a second call came from Iranian Olympic Committee president Reza Salehi Amiri, informing him that Iranian National Security had visited his parent’s house.
Mollaei, the defending -81kg champion, believes that without the emotional stress he could have retained his title in Tokyo.
“I could have been the world champion. I’ve been training hard, making lots of efforts,” said Mollaei, who was reportedly in tears backstage after hearing the call.
“Today, I fought and won against an Olympic champion, an Olympics bronze medalist and other opponents. I beat all of them.
“I even dreamed of the championship title today. But that was not my fate: I could not compete because of the law in my country, and because I was scared of consequences for my family and myself.”
An inclusive sport
Following the release of the story on its website, the official IJF Twitter account name has changed to “#ISupportMollaei”.
President Vizer said in a statement: “Judo is a sport based on values and principles, all action that we take are first of all to protect and for the interest of the athletes while staying true to the ideals of Judo.
“The Judo family is fully supporting our athletes and striving to set an example for humanity with the target of displaying integrity and respect. We are competing for a better World.”
There is a history of athletes not competing for their nations of birth – two judoka from Congo competed as part of a new Refugee Olympic Team at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
And this could be an option for Mollaei, according to Vizer. “It is our mission to protect our athletes – that’s clear,” he told AFP.
“We will do our best that he will compete in the Olympic Games. Later we will see in which team – there are different options, but one of them will be applied for the Olympics.”
Vizer added in a Twitter question and answer session Monday: “Soon the procedure against Iranian Judo Federation will start and we will act accordingly to our rules, judo principles and Olympic charter.”
The International Olympic Committee told CNN in a statement: “After learning about the case, the IOC has requested a full report from IJF. Based on this report we will further evaluate the situation.”
CNN have reached out to the Israel Judo Federation and the Iran Judo Federation for comment.