'I Wanted to Be the First Iranian to Come to Israel'

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Saeid Mollaei competes during the finals of the men's under 81kg category of Tel Aviv Grand Slam.
Saeid Mollaei competes during the finals of the men's under 81kg category of Tel Aviv Grand Slam.Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP

The message came in the late afternoon. A few paragraphs of what looked to be Farsi showed up on my phone screen – he had answered. Saeid Mollaei, the Iranian judoka who fled his country, became a refugee, and competed last week in the Tel Aviv Grand Slam, had consented to an interview with an Israeli media outlet in his mother tongue.

“I was very happy to come to Israel for the first time after I left Iran and to be the first Iranian athlete who is doing so in 42 years, since the revolution,” was his opening remark.

Until September 2019, this whole scenario – an Iranian athlete competing in Israel and gladly giving interviews to local outlets, and with a sense of mission, too – seemed like a fantasy. Over the years Mollaei was forced to fake injuries and lose matches on purpose to avoid facing off against the Israeli judoka Sagi Muki, on instruction of the Iranian government. It seemed like the 2018 world champion in the under 81-kilogram category would have to give up his Olympic dreams for political reasons, until the world championship in Tokyo in 2019, when Mollaei realized he’d had enough.

“As has been reported in the past, according to the regulations of the Iranian system, they didn’t allow me to take part in the decisive competitions of the world championship in Japan and my family was under threat,” he tells Haaretz Sports in an exclusive interview. “After all, you already know.”

Indeed, this dramatic story has already be told in detail, among other places in a comprehensive article by the International Judo Federation: How the sports minister and the head of the Iranian Olympic Committee called Mollaei during the championship and demanded that he not reach the semifinals to avoid competing with Muki or standing next to him on the podium; how he begged to be allowed to fulfill his dream; how his friends warned him that the authorities in Iran had gone to his family’s home and threatened them if he did not obey; how he collapsed in tears between competitions when he realized that his connection to his homeland had been severed.

Saeid Mollaei in Germany.Credit: Michael Probst/AP

Mollaei never went back to Iran, and it seems he never will – after he was forced to throw two fights in the 2019 world championship, he was put on a plane to Germany with the personal assistance of the head of the International Judo Federation, Marius Vizer. Once there, he asked for political asylum.

He began a new life as a refugee in Germany, where he has an apartment and a girlfriend; his trainer Mohammad Mansouri left with him (he also asked for and was granted political asylum). His old life was left behind.

“Everyone misses their country and I do too – Iran is my country,” he says. “Emigration is hard for anyone, but I left it all behind. I’ve forgotten the past. I had a hard life, but I started a new life and I live as a free person and work to realize my goals.”

It’s not that it’s easy for Mollaei – his family and most of his friends are in Iran, and he lives in Germany as a refugee with Mongolian citizenship. While he was a superstar of sorts in his homeland, he has to start all over again in Europe and build his life from zero. This process, he says, is still not complete.

But he doesn’t complain. “The new life is hard too – there are tough conditions, but I enjoy every day of my life because I was able to become a free man who lives without any problems and I am trying very hard to reach my goals, and I want to enjoy myself,” he says. “Yes – I enjoy life, I’m glad I reached my goals, and I especially want to take part in the Olympics and make my family and my friends in Iran happy – they are all good and kind people.”

During his brief visit to Israel, Mollaei showed the same courteousness to the locals that he said he himself encountered in the country. After he reached the finals of the Tel Aviv Grand Slam, he waved at the cameras, the Israeli team and the local media in the bleachers as a moving gesture of gratitude. When he completed the semifinal rounds, he turned to the Israeli Judo Association cameras and said thank you in Hebrew three times.

In an interview after he won the silver medal, he thanked his Israeli hosts and the chairman of the Israeli Judo Association, Moshe Ponte – who during the final loudly rooted for Mollaei from the bleachers as if he here a member of the Israeli team. That was not far from the truth – Mollaei was given special treatment and had a training day with the Israeli team in preparation for the tournament. Ponte couldn’t stop telling anyone who would listen how excited he was.

Saeid Mollaei (white) competes against Azeri Zelim Tckaev in the men's under 81kg category of Tel Aviv Grand Slam 2021.Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP

Mollaei had to pinch himself to make sure that he had really landed in Israel, that it wasn’t a dream. And what was even greater was his surprise at the country itself. “Before I came to Israel I thought this was an old country full of wars, with angry, militant people – and all kinds of mistaken things and lies they taught us in Iran,” he says. “But my first trip to Israel, during the first two days, I was in total shock and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing – I thought that everything they taught us in Iran was a total mistake. People in Israel are energetic and friendly, the country is modern, beautiful, peaceful and conducts itself peacefully. This made me very happy. I’ll be glad to come back to Israel and see friendly relations between Iranians and Israelis.”

He has one close Israeli friend already – Sagi Muki. Back in 2019, during the world championship, Mollaei responded to Muki’s Instagram post about his win and congratulated him. The two new friends began to talk about the possibility of training together, and they even met twice during competitions they both took part in. The optimistic scenario was a chance to meet on the mat at the Tel Aviv Grand Slam, but Muki was eliminated in his first fight by an ippon. “I was a bit sorry that we didn’t fight,” Mollaei says. “I loved the idea that I would come up against Sagi for the first time and we could prove to the world that even when we fight, in victory or defeat, in sports there’s friendship and there are no politics.”

That’s another reason that it was so important for Mollaei to come to this competition. Ahead of the Tel Aviv Grand Slam began, the Israeli Judo Association explained to Haaretz Sports that Mollaei and his trainer were the ones who pushed to come to Israel – against the stand of Vizer, who feared that Mollaei’s visit to Israel could put him at risk. Only the personal assurances of Ponte, who made the arrangements for Mollaei’s arrival with the security authorities and ensured that he would not be questioned at the airport, allowed for his arrival in Israel.

The judoka explained repeatedly that he would not delve into political issues. In an article, the Internal Judo Association called his participation in a competition in Israel “a normal thing” – the reality should be that any person can compete in any country. That is exactly what Mollaei wanted to show. When asked why it was so important for him to compete in Israel, he replies: “I wanted to say to the world that I never lied – to say that sport is devoid of politics. I wanted to be the first Iranian who comes to Israel without a problem, safely and in friendship, because I’m an athlete – not a political person.”

It was so important for Mollaei to publicly say that he didn’t lie because Iran vehemently denied the claims that it had threatened him or his family, that they prevented him from competing and took his dream away. He loves Iran with all his heart, but he also feels betrayed by it. “I’ve forgotten the past, because I have no way back to Iran, and I have no personal safety,” he says, “but I have begun a new life and I am proving to the whole world that I’m telling the truth and that this system I fled from is lying. I thank God that I live under his protection and not in fear of death. I live in freedom, in the name of humanity and love of others, generosity and the whole human race.” As of today, these values have no greater or more moving ambassador than Saeid Mollaei.

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