On July 27, Saeid Mollaei won the silver medal in the men’s 81 kg judo final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics representing Mongolia. Mollaei was seeking to win the gold medal in a tense final fight against Japan’s Takanori Nagase but eventually ended up losing the match.
Lasting more than five and a half minutes, the extremely close contest was brought to a dramatic finish when Nagase executed an ashi-guruma foot wheel, which put Mollaei down on the tatami mats that earned a waza-ari sudden-death overtime victory for Nagase.
Mollaei, originally from Iran, defected from the Islamist country and fled to Germany after disobeying instructions from a minister to pull back from the Judo World Championships in 2019 to avoid facing Israel’s Sagi Muki. Iran has prohibited participation in sporting events against Israel since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
When Mollaei represented Iran in 2019, he had advanced to the semifinal round. Seeking to defend his championship following the win in 2018 in Azerbaijan, Mollaei was eventually directed by Iranian officials to lose the semifinal match against Belgian judo fighter Matthias Casse so as to avoid fighting in the final match against Israeli champion Sagi Muki.
International Judo Federation (IJF) called the Iranian government’s interference “a serious breach and gross violation of the statutes of IJF, its legitimate interests, its principles, and objectives.” Iran was suspended from IJF events for four years.
Mollaei subsequently fled Iran, forced to go into hiding as he “feared for his life at home.” He was given asylum in Germany in August 2019 and later received citizenship in Mongolia in December 2019.
Sagi Muki and Mollaei eventually became friends and kept pushing each other over the span of two years in their preparation for the Olympics and other international events. Mollaei also participated in an international judo competition in Tel Aviv earlier in February this year where he thanked the people of Israel for their support.
Iranian officials however reacted negatively to Mollaei’s success. “This is not an honor but a stain of shame on your forehead that will stay with you forever, because you have turned your back on the ideals of the system, on your homeland, and are proud of it,” President of the Iranian Judo Federation Arash Miresmaeili said in a statement at that time.
After winning the silver at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Mollaei thanked the Israelis. “Thank you to Israel for the good energy. This medal is dedicated also to Israel. I hope the Israelis are happy with this win…Todah (Thank you in Hebrew),” he said to the Israeli Sports Channel.
Sagi Muki stated he was ecstatic for his friend for his achievement even though he had a disappointing end to his Olympic campaign. “I’m super happy for Saeid. I know what he’s gone through, and how much he wanted it. He’s a very close friend of mine, and I’m so happy that he succeeded in achieving his dream. He deserves it – his journey is incredibly inspiring,” Muki said at a press conference.