Saeid Mollaei is the first athlete from Iran to take part in a sporting competition in Israel since the Islamic Revolution. The judoka has sparked a fierce reaction in Iran as well as enthusiasm from its "archenemy."
"Saeid Mollaei is a national hero for Iranians," Vahid Sarlak, a close friend of the 2018 and 2019 world half-middleweight judo champion, told DW on Sunday. Mollaei, who fled his homeland for Germany, has over the weekend become the first athlete from Iran to compete in a tournament in Israel since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Sarlak, who also used to compete as a judoka for Iran, came to Germany much earlier, in 2009. Today, he is a judo coach in the western city of Mönchengladbach and a German citizen. He followed his friend's trip to Israel with great interest.
In the view of the Iranian government, Mollaei's appearance in Israel was a serious violation of his home country's laws. Since the regime in Tehran does not recognize Israel's right to exist, Iranian citizens are not allowed to enter the country. But Mollaei felt it was more important to send a message of peace than to obey the rules of a regime whose political pressure he fled.
"I want to thank everyone first, the world federation and all the people," Mollaei said in Tel Aviv. "Sport and politics are different. I am very happy. Now I am like any other sportsman. I am free, no problems, no politics. I am just a sportsman."
Saeid Mollaei (right) deliberately lost his bout against Mattias Casse of Belgium at the 2019 World Championships
But that is not the way the regime in his home country sees things. According to Tehran, Iranian athletes should always represent the values of the Islamic Republic and therefore not compete against rivals from Israel. Even if no one says so officially, it is an unwritten law. Often, Iranians do not compete if their next opponent is from Israel because of alleged injuries. Or they lose on purpose in the previous round to avoid a clash with an Israeli. Pressure is put on athletes and coaches by the regime. Those who refuse to comply are threatened with personal consequences or reprisals for their families.
Mollaei is one of the victims of this policy, and it was the reason why he eventually decided to flee. At the 2019 World Judo Championships in Tokyo, Mollaei intentionally lost his semifinal bout against Matthias Casse of Belgium to avoid the possibility of having to face Sagi Muki of Israel in the final. Through his coach, Iranian officials had warned him not to win. While Mollaei bowed to the immediate pressure, subsequently he decided not to return to Iran from Japan, traveling to Germany instead — a country for which he held a two-year visa.
Mollaei's actions in the 2019 competition led to a ban for Iran from all international judo competitions which was only lifted at the beginning of March this year.
In leaving his country, Mollaei became just the latest in a veritable wave of Iranian athletes who have left their country for the same reason. Taekwondo fighters Kimia Alizadeh and Raheleh Asemani, canoeist Saeid Fazloula, chess player Alireza Firouzja and national futsal player Javad Esfandiari are among the other examples.
Sarlak sees the importance of Mollaei's participation in the tournament in Tel Aviv as extending far beyond the event's sporting significance.
"Other Iranian athletes watched Mollaei's performance in Israel," he said. "I hope they will now feel empowered to throw off the state's shackles, which require them to deliberately lose in competitions in order to avoid coming up against athletes from Israel."
In fact, you could even argue that the Tel Aviv Judo Grand Slam, which was an Olympic qualifying tournament, was of very little sporting significance for Mollaei. As the No. 8 judoka in the world in his weight class, he had already qualified for the Summer Games in Tokyo anyway.
Nevertheless, he also showed his class on the mat, where he earned a silver medal after losing to Sharofiddin Boltaboev of Uzbekistan in the final. However, at the awards ceremony, the Iranian flag was not displayed next to the Uzbek flag, but instead that of Mongolia, as Mollaei has since been granted Mongolian citizenship.
However, there is no changing the fact that Mollaei is actually from Iran. So, unsurprisingly, the Iran Judo Federation felt the need to weigh in. "It is a badge of shame that Mollaei competed in Israel," said Iran Judo Federation boss and former world champion judoka Arash Miresmaeili. It also couldn't have pleased Miresmaeili to learn of the enthusiasm with which Mollaei was received by "the enemy."
"It's a great day for Israel and for world sports," said Moshe Ponti, chairman of the Israel Judo Federation."
Other Israeli officials also expressed support for Mollaei. And there was plenty of encouragement from the Israeli population as well. There are many Iranian refugees of the Jewish faith living in Israel after fleeing their homeland since the Islamic Republic was established in Tehran in 1979.
Sarlak is convinced that many people in Iran, too, will have welcomed Mollaei's move because they don't share the Iranian regime's hatred and rejection of Israel.
"You have to separate the Iranians from the dictatorial regime of the Islamic Republic," he told DW. "Iranians are proud of Saeid Mollaei."
Adaptation: Matt Pearson, Chuck Penfold