An Iranian judoka who fled his country after ignoring orders to drop out of a match to avoid facing an Israeli won a silver medal on Friday after losing to his competitor at the final round of an international tournament in Israel.
Saeid Mollaei, a 2018 judo world champion, fled Iran for Germany after saying Iranian authorities had put pressure on him to drop out of the 2019 world championships in Tokyo to avoid a potential final round against Israeli contender Sagi Muki.
Mollaei, who refused to pull out and reached the semi-final in Tokyo, gained refugee status in Germany and later became a citizen of Mongolia, which he is representing at the International Judo Federation's Tel Aviv Grand Slam.
"I compete for Mongolia. I don't compete for Iran ... I play sports. I have always been an athlete, never political," Mollaei told Israeli public broadcaster Kan.
Mollaei beat competitors from Azerbaijan and Italy to advance to the contest finals, but lost to Uzebkistan's Sharofiddin Boltaboev, who snatched the gold medal at the men's under 81 kg category.
Audience members at the contest cheered and applauded after Mollaei's wins, and he received warm support from Israeli fans and officials, including president of Israel Judo Association, Moshe Ponte, who cheered him on during the match against Boltaboev.
Iran, which has refused to recognize Israel since Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979, was banned indefinitely from international judo competition after the Mollaei incident.
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Arash Mir Ismaili, head of Iran's judo federation, told the official IRNA news agency on Tuesday that Mollaei had "turned (his) back on the ideals of the regime and the country's goals ... which is shameful."
Muki, who won the world title in Tokyo and is competing in Tel Aviv, posted a photo on Twitter of the two of them smiling together, captioned with the words "Welcome brother", and the Israeli, Iranian and Mongolian flags.
Muki was knocked out of the contest on Friday after losing his first match to Sami Chouchi of Belarus. The Israeli said after losing the match: "It shows anything can happen… I really wanted to succeed here." He added it was "part of way" to realize he should prepare better ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Some 421 competitors from 60 countries are competing in the Tel Aviv Grand Slam, organizers said. Competitors arriving from foreign countries were given special exemptions from a travel ban imposed by Israel during the COVID-19 pandemic.