Iran told his champion Judo player to withdraw from the World Judo Championships in Japan so he wouldn’t risk facing Israel, Saeid Mollaei said, adding that he now fears for his life and that of his family as he ignored the official request.
Israel and Iran have no official ties and Tehran has previously stopped athletes from facing Israeli sportspeople.
Speaking in Germany, Mollaei told the BBC he took part in the championship because “I am a fighter. I want to compete wherever I can.”
Having ignored Iran’s calls for him not to face his Israeli counterpart, he said: “ I am afraid. I am afraid of what might happen to my family and to myself.”
Tehran had initially told Mollaei to withdraw from his match against Russia’s Olympic champion Khasan Khalmurzaev to avoid the prospect of facing Israel’s Sagi Muki later in the tournament.
He was eventually knocked out in the semi-finals of the men’s -81kg class. Muki went on to win the gold medal.
This is not the first case when politics and sports have collided. In 2004 Judo contestant Arash Miresmaeili threatened to quit the Olympics after almost competing against an Israeli opponent. He was later eliminated for not meeting the weight requirements for the planned contest.
In summer 2018, Iranian athlete Mohammad Abbas Nejad was also told to pull out of the Tbilisi 2018 Judo Grand Prix held in Hungary. Nejad was set to face Israeli competitor Yarin Mnagid.