Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei will be welcomed home “like a champion” despite ignoring what he says were government instructions to withdraw from judo’s World Championships to avoid a clash with an Israeli fighter.
Mollaei feared for his and his family’s safety after claiming he was warned by two high-ranking Iranian officials to withdraw during the recent event in Tokyo, Japan.
But Salehi Amiri, the president of Iran’s Olympic Committee, insists Mollaei and his family will be safe.
“We have assured Mollaei that he and his family will not and have not faced any threats or danger,” Amiri told Iranian state media.
“We guarantee that if he returns to Iran, we will welcome him like a champion with open arms.”
Iranian athletes have long been prohibited from competing against Israelis, but earlier his year Iran told the International Judo Federation (IJF) it would “fully respect” the Olympic charter, suggesting its stance was softening.
Mollaei, the defending 81 kilogram champion, was on course to meet Israel’s Sagi Muki in the final, but he claims he received the calls ahead of his third-round match and again before the semifinal, in which he lost to eventual champion Matthias Casse of Belgium.
After the event Mollaei traveled to Germany, where the International Judo Federation (IJF) says he is beginning the asylum process.
However, Amiri said messages from Mollaei suggest he is “showing interest in returning to Iran.”
Amiri added that Iran’s Olympic Committee has sent “four letters of complaint” to the International Olympic Committee about the conduct of the IJF, which reported Mollaei’s story on its website and changed its Twitter name to #ISupportMollaei.
He said of Mollaei’s semifinal defeat: “Mollaei’s loss was authentic and the accusation that we planned it is false.”
Mollaei blamed his loss on the emotional stress of the perceived threats, and insists he could have won gold without the distractions.
IJF president Marius Vizer told the Agence France Presse news agency: “It is our mission to protect our athletes – that’s clear.
“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.”
The International Olympic Committee told CNN in a statement Monday: “After learning about the case, the IOC has requested a full report from IJF. Based on this report we will further evaluate the situation.”