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SPORTS – Olympics

AN UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIP: Iranian defector, Israeli judokas display their Olympic medals and their close bond

Mollaei dedicates his silver medal to Israel after winning for his new country, Mongolia

Israel's Sagi Muki and Iranian defector, Saied Mollaei - now of Mongolia - display their Olympic medals in Tokyo, July 2021. (Photo: Facebook)

Perhaps one of the best things that judoka Saeid Mollaei ever did for his career was to defy his Iranian coaches who ordered him to drop his match against an Israeli in the semifinals of the 2019 World Championships.

Mollaei, who was born, raised and trained in Iran, made that fateful decision to face Israel’s Sagi Muki in 2019. He then had to face even tougher decisions and defect from his own country or face untold consequences.

Now competing for Mongolia, Mollaei won a silver medal in the Tokyo Olympics. Afterwards, he dedicated his victory to Israel.

“Thank you to Israel for the good energy. This medal is dedicated also to Israel,” Mollaei said in an interview with an Israeli sports channel. “I hope the Israelis are happy with this win,” and added in Hebrew, “Toda (thank you).”

Muki, who defeated Mollaei in that fateful World Championships match, congratulated the new medalist and called him a “close friend.”

“I’m super happy for Saeid,” Muki said. “I know what he’s gone through and how much he wanted it. He’s a very close friend of mine, and I’m so happy that he succeeded in achieving his dream. He deserves it – his journey is incredibly inspiring.”

Muki, who lost his own individual match, won only a bronze in the team competition in this year's Olympics.

But several other competitors from Muslim nations refused to face Israeli athletes in Tokyo, including Sudan’s Mohamed Abdalrasool and Algeria’s Fethi Nourine.

International Olympic Committee Director of Solidarity James Macleod said in a statement on Tuesday that the IOC is “monitoring” these cases.

“Clearly, if there are flagrant abuses of the Olympic Charter, the IOC will take all necessary measures in that respect,” he said. “We will investigate anything that is raised to us, even from third parties. We will work with the national Olympic committees concerned, the international federations, etc., to respond to those on a case-by-case basis.”

Mollaei was welcomed to Israel for the Grand Slam international judo competition in Tel Aviv in 2021. At the time he said Israel had been “very good to [him] since [he] arrived” and that the members of Israel's team had "been very kind.”

“That is something I will never forget,” he said.

Nicole Jansezian was the news editor and senior correspondent for ALL ISRAEL NEWS.

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