By Payam Younesipour
February 16, 2021
Saeed Molaei, a former Iranian judo champion who fled to Germany in November 2019, will travel to Israel this week. He is scheduled to compete in the Grand Slam in Tel Aviv under the Mongolian flag. Another Iranian judoka in exile, Mohammad Rashnonejad, was hoping to be sent to the tournament, but his name does not appear on the final list of participants.
Molaei applied for asylum in Germany in November 2019 because the Iranian Judo Federation had prevented him from facing his Israeli opponent in the World Championships in Japan. “Welcome to the family,” the International Judo Federation posted on its official website after Molaei was granted asylum.
What Molaei said about the government’s direct and ideological meddling in Iranian sports eventually led to the suspension of the Iranian Judo Federation. The International Judo Federation, in accordance with the rules of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), prohibits political interference in the affairs of any country’s domestic federation.
Despite five years of temporary residence in Germany, Molaei had to obtain permanent residence in his host country to participate in international competitions. But according to the law he was then not allowed to participate in international competitions under the German flag, so he accepted an offer of Mongolian citizenship.
False Excuses for Avoiding Israelis
Iran has banned its athletes from competing with Israelis based on a personal decision made by then-Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati in 1983, which was never enshrined in law. At the World Wrestling Championships in Kyiv that year, Bijan Seifkhani from Gilan had wrestled against Israeli Robinson Konashvili and won 7-4.
The foreign minister ordered the entire wrestling team back to Iran. The coaches entered each of the players’ rooms that night, woke them up and told them to pack their bags for Tehran. On their return all the technical staff, and of course Bijan Seifkhani, were reprimanded.
Ever since then the same sentence has regularly been repeated by Iranian sports commentators, on television and on the radio: an Iranian athlete has refused to compete an Israeli “because of his or her support for the oppressed people of Palestine.”
Until the 2004 Athens Olympics the propaganda of the Islamic Republic of Iran always attributed the decision to the athlete. But when an official international ban on refusing to compete with teams or athletes for any political, racial, ethnic or religious reason then came into effect, Iranian athletes were forced resort to false pretences such as injury or deliberately accepting defeat in preceding rounds.
Penalties Even for the New Year’s Message
Molaei was not the first athlete to oppose this policy. But his influence was greater than that of less prominent athletes. Others, even athletes or referees and coaches who deliberately or unknowingly stood in front of or next to an Israeli athlete, disappeared forever.
At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Mohammad Reza Minoukadeh, who at the time chaired the judo committee of the Iranian Judo Federation, was assigned by the International Judo Federation to referee a judo match between Israeli Gal Yekutiel and Ruslan Kishmakhov from Russia. Yekutiel won and Minoukadeh was removed from all his positions in Iran.
In January 2010 Mohammad Mansour Azimzadeh, head of international relations at the Iranian Football Federation, sent a New Year’s message in an email to all football federations around the world. Minutes later, an email from the Israeli Football Federation reached the Iranian Football Federation: “Happy New Year to the good people of Iran; with respect, the Israeli Football Federation.” Mansour Azimzadeh resigned 48 hours later and left football forever.
In 2016 Iran’s Young Journalists Club, in a report under the headline “A Medal that Smells of Blood,” celebrated Hossein Bagheri’s silver medal for 10-meter indoor shooting in the World Cup in Azerbaijan. Why did his medal smell of blood? Because 50 meters away from him an Israeli was firing in the same hall. On his return to Iran, Bagheri was summoned to the Ministry of Sports and Youth and interrogated for six hours.
In 2017 Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi, footballers who were both members of Greece’s Panionios club, were left out of the Iranian national team for a while due to having played a game against Israel’s Maccabi club. They were threatened by Iranian security, political and sports officials, but eventually returned to the Iranian national team after threats of action from the world football umbrella organization FIFA.
Having to Lose on Purpose
Molaei did not escape the threats of the Islamic Republic even after taking refuge in Germany. Swiss police escorted him on the day he came to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to testify against the Iranian Judo Federation about death threats he had received.
Now, the website of the International Judo Federation has announced that Molaei will definitely compete in the Israeli Grand Slam. The tournament will be held in Tel Aviv from February 18 to February 20. On the same website Molaei’s name together with the Mongolian flag can be seen in the fifth list of judokas weighing less than 80kg.
It is noteworthy that Israeli judoka Sagi Muki will also be taking part in the competition. At the World Judo Championships in Tokyo in 2019 Molaei deliberately lost in the semifinal to Belgium’s Matthias Casse to avoid facing Muki in the final. Muki went on to win the gold. The Times of Israel later wrote: “Molaei’s deliberate defeat made Sagi Muki the first judoka in the country’s history to win gold at world competitions.”
Israel will also have three other judokas in the under-80kg category in these competitions. So there is a possibility that Molaei will face one of them. The Iranian is traveling to Israel in a situation where the Iranian Judo Federation is suspended, and the IOC has told all international federations to monitor any Iranian attempts to interfere politically in sports.