Iranian Judo Star in Tel Aviv: ‘We Were Taught to Hate Israelis’

Exiled Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei is set to compete at the Tel Aviv Grand Slam against Israel's Sagi Muki. In 2019 Mollaei was forced to skip a match against him that cost him the world championships

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Iranian judo star Saeid Mollaei, center, after landing at Ben-Gurion Airport this week.
Saeid Mollaei, center, after landing at Ben-Gurion Airport this week. Credit: Israel Judo Association

At the Tel Aviv Hilton, when Saeid Mollaei looked out of his window at the people down below, he was amazed. “We were taught to hate Israelis,” he said to his hosts.

Having grown up under the ayatollahs in Iran, he couldn’t believe that Israel was such a modern place. He expected a menacing military atmosphere, only to find a country that greeted him with open arms, even if the coronavirus rules were forcing him to isolate in his hotel room.

A year and a half ago, officials at the Israel Judo Association would never have believed that Mollaei would come to Israel to compete. Until the 2019 world championships in Tokyo, Mollaei represented Iran and faked injuries to avoid competing against Israel’s Sagi Muki in high-stakes competitions.

Mollaei at the 2019 world championships in Tokyo. He was put under tremendous pressure by the Iranian authorities.Credit: Kim Kyung-Hoo / Reuters

The drama of that year’s championships changed all that – Mollaei was put under tremendous pressure by the Iranian authorities to pull out to avoid facing Muki, and when Mollaei refused, the Iranian security forces paid his family a visit. To protect his family, he deliberately lost two matches so he wouldn’t end up standing on the podium alongside Muki, who went on to win the gold.

By the middle of that tournament, Mollaei knew he wouldn’t return to Iran. With his coach, Mohammad Mansouri, he fled to Germany and became a refugee there. He would go on to compete for Mongolia, which granted him citizenship.

Once he left Iran, he developed a friendship with Muki, an Israeli with Yemenite roots who hails from Netanya north of Tel Aviv. The two have met a number of times at competitions around the world, but never on the mat. That could change this week at the Tel Aviv Grand Slam.

Mollaei had expressed a desire to compete in Israel when he met members of the Israeli team at a big event in Qatar last month, but the contacts only really took off a few weeks ago. “His coach got in touch and we started to get things rolling,” says the chairman of the Israel Judo Association, Moshe Ponte.

Careful at the airport

It wasn’t very simple. First Ponte had to obtain the approval of the chairman of the International Judo Federation, Marius Vizer, then coordinate Mollaei’s visit with the Israeli security services. Iranians, even if they’re refugees, still can’t enter Israel so easily.

Sagi Muki congratulating Mollaei on his first competition on a refugee team, November 2019.Credit: Nir Keidar

Vizer was hesitant at first. Mollaei had fled Iran because of judo, so Vizer helped him obtain refugee status and then a Mongolian passport. He feels responsible for the Tehran native’s security and that of his family, so it helped when Ponte received assurances that Mollaei would be treated in Israel no differently than any other athlete.

Meanwhile, Ponte made sure to be at Ben-Gurion Airport when Mollaei landed to ensure that no one took him aside for questioning or gave him any other problems.

“There were things to think about at the airport, too,” Ponte says. “I handled that ahead of time. This was an operation where you had to give thought to all the little details.”

The Israel Judo Association had to address a bunch of other issues ahead of the three-day competition this week. Months ago, Ponte signed off on holding the tournament here, but the shuttering of Ben-Gurion threatened to cancel it.

“As soon as I saw they would be closing the airport – and I had already signed for this Grand Slam when I was in Qatar – I said, ‘I absolutely have to make sure we can hold this event.’”

Saeid Mollaei poses with his gold medal after winning in the under 81kg category of the 2018 Judo World Championships in Baku.Credit: MLADEN ANTONOV - AFP

So three weeks ago he contacted Vizer with a proposal – lease El Al planes that would wait at Paris, Istanbul and Frankfurt, pick up the judokas there and bring them to Israel. Once the proposal was accepted, Ponte had to convince Israel’s health and transport ministries. “It was quite an undertaking, getting hold of each person and speaking to them. It was crazy,” he says.

A hug, coronavirus or not

Once the green light came in Israel, problems piled up elsewhere; for example, the French wouldn’t let Brazilians or Americans enter the country. Then a day before the Israeli airliner was due to land at Charles de Gaulle Airport to bring the athletes over, the French airport authority announced that it was banning planes from Israel.

“Then there was all this crazy running around,” Ponte says. “The government got involved so that this event would take place. I think that was right. I think it shows the world that when Israel wants to do something it does it.”

Permission was finally granted and the athletes arrived. Until the last minute, Ponte didn’t know if Mollaei would really be among them.

Moshe Ponte, head of the Israel Judo Association.Credit: Nir Keidar

“I wanted to ask if he was on the plane or not,” Ponte says. “I said to myself, ‘Until I see Saeid Mollaei arrive in Israel and set foot on Israeli soil, I won’t believe he’s coming.’ And when he arrived, I said, ‘I’ll hug him so he’ll feel that we’re embracing him, not giving him the cold shoulder.’”

Ponte is aware of the uproar that ensued after the Israel Judo Association released a video of him shaking Mollaei’s hand and hugging him – a violation of the Grand Slam’s coronavirus rules. Mollaei hadn’t yet presented a negative test after arriving in Israel.

“You know what? I apologize for hugging Saeid Mollaei. I shouldn’t have hugged him. But I would do it again and again, okay? Because that’s the situation,” Ponte says. “I said it at the airport and I’ll say it again now: I was so excited I thought my knees wouldn’t hold me up. I feel excited when I’m talking about it now.”

Ponte greatly admires Mollaei, and Mollaei also seems to appreciate the judo community in Israel. “He’s an amazing person,” Ponte says. “You see him, he’s so modest. Even if he should complain about something, he doesn’t complain. He’ll always only say positive things.”

With his coronavirus test negative, Mollaei is now training with members of the Israeli men’s judo team. On Friday, if all goes to plan, he’ll face Sagi Muki for a thrilling final match in the up-to-81-kilogram (179-pound) weight class, right here in Israel. If that happens, the Hollywood screenplay starring Saeid Mollaei will get a perfect ending.

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