JERUSALEM, Israel – Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei will be in Israel in January to compete at the Tel Aviv Grand Prix International Judo Federation (IJF) tournament, according to a report from Israel’s Army Radio.
Mollaei and his family faced death threats from the Iranian government after he refused Tehran's demands that he withdraw from a tournament in August to avoid fighting against an Israeli opponent. Iranian athletes are prohibited from competing in any sport against Israel and are forced to forfeit matches and even intentionally lose. The IFJ suspended Iran from competing in world Judo competitions due to its discriminatory policy.
Mollaei has not returned to his home country for fear of his life and will not be competing on behalf of Iran. Instead, he recently received citizenship from Mongolia so he can continue to pursue his dreams and compete – even if his opponents are Israelis.
“Thank you to the President of Mongolia Khaltmaagin Battulga, for offering me the Mongolian citizenship and for helping me pursuing my Olympics dream,” Mollaei wrote in an Instagram post.
Army Radio reported that Mollaei met with President Battulga and IJF head Marius Vizer about the decision to compete in Israel next month. According to the report, Israeli Judo Association President Moshe Ponte will meet with the three in Mongolia this weekend to discuss making Mollaei’s visit official.
Now that Mollaei is officially a Mongolian citizen, there is a chance he could go up against Israeli judo Sagi Muki next week at a tournament in China. It could be the first time the pair ever compete against each other.
Muki publicly supported Mollaei when Iranian authorities cracked down on him and his family in Iran. Mollaei said in a post on Instagram that he considers Muki to be his “best friend.”
"I am friends with Sagi Muki, as I am with all other athletes," Mollaei said in an interview with DW. "He supports me and I thank him for this. I hope that we can one day extend our friendship to the tatami mat.
"It doesn’t matter who wins, what matters is friendship," he said.
Mollaei also told DW he will probably never return to Iran.