Iranian Judoka to Compete in Tel Aviv as Part of Refugee Team

Mohammad Rashnonezhad, who fled his home country, said he hopes to show 'sports are separate from politics'

People watch the Tel Aviv Grand Prix competition, January 2019.
Nir Keidar

Iranian judoka Mohammad Rashnonezhad announced Friday he will compete at the Tel Aviv Grand Prix in January, marking a historic event amid decades-long animosity between Iran and Israel and pressure by Iranian authorities to prevent athletes from competing against Israelis.

Rashnonezhad, who fled to the Netherlands and was recognized as a refugee in 2017, competes with the International Judo Federation's refugee team in the under-60 kilogram men's category.

In an Instagram post announcing his decision to come to Tel Aviv, Rashnonezhad said he hopes to positively represent Iranian athletes and the Iranian people, and show that "sports are separate from politics."

Another judoka who fled Iran and currently competing with the IJF's refugee team, Saied Mollaei, has shown public support for his Israeli counterpart in the under-81kg category, Sagi Muki, in an exchange of messages of support on Instagram last week.

After Mollaei competed for the first time since his defection to Germany in August at the Osaka Grand Slam competition in Japan, Muki congratulated him on Instagram, saying "This is a triumph of sports over politics." Mollai, in response, called the Israeli athlete his "best friend."

Iranian authorities pressured Mollaei to deliberately lose the semi-finals of the World Judo Championships in Tokyo so that he wouldn't face Muki in the finals. There were also reports that he was forced to lose in the competition for the bronze medal so that he would share a medal podium with the Israeli, who won the gold.

Following the competition, Mollaei sought asylum in Germany. The IJF suspended Iran from international competitions over Mollaei's case until it drops its boycott of Israel.