Iranian defector and refugee judoka Saeid Mollaei dedicated his first ever Olympic medal to Israel and thanked the country for the support it had given him. Mollaei shouted out Israel after winning the silver medal in the men's 81kg Judo event, a nod to his difficult past and the obstacles he overcame to be able to compete in this year's Tokyo Olympics.
Mollaei, however, is representing Mongolia, where he settled two years ago after leaving his native Iran. He even spoke in Hebrew while thanking Israel after losing the gold to Japan's Takanori Nagase.
His Love for Israel
Mollaei, 29, who trained in Israel with their national judo team in the months before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, had to overcome a lot of obstacles to compete in this year's games. "Thank you to Israel for all the good energy -â this medal is dedicated to you as well and I hope Israeli is happy with this victory, todah," Mollaei told Israeli news outlet Channel 5 Sports after winning the silver medal. He was speaking in Hebrew.
Israel's Sagi Muki, who was a top contender for an Olympic medal this time around, also congratulated Mollaei despite his own disappointing finish on Tuesday. "I'm super happy for Saeid," Muki told a press conference of Israeli reporters on Tuesday. "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 â his journey is incredibly inspiring."
That said, Mollaei went down fighting to Nagase in the finals. The contest came to a dramatic close when Nagase, 27, delivered an ashi-guruma foot wheel to throw Mollaei down on the tatami mats to earn a waza-ari sudden death overtime victory.
Rivals Become Friends
Mollaei, who is an Iranian refugee, was a citizen of that country until 2019, when he exposed Iranian authorities. He was ordered by Iranian authorities to intentionally lose a semi-final match in the 2019 Tokyo World Championships as the Iranian government feared that Mollaei would face off against Israeli champion Muki and lose, which would make Iran look bad on the world stage.
Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has prohibited any sporting events with its mortal enemy, Israel. Mollaei then defected to Germany after disobeying the orders. The judoka obtained Mongolian citizenship shortly afterwards and has previously said that he fears for his life if he returns home.
The highly publicized incident at the 2019 World Championships at the same time also marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Mollaei and Muki. The two have time and again supported and cheered for each other.
In February, Mollaei competed at the Grand Slam international judo competition held in Tel Aviv, also taking home the silver, and told CNN that Israel had been "very good to me since I arrived," adding that the Israeli judo team members "have been very kind. That is something I will never forget."
Iran, however, once again slammed Mollaei for his decision to play in Tel Aviv. President of the Iranian Judo Federation Arash Miresmaeili expressed regret that "a foolish athlete" and "hollow champion who only thinks of his personal interests has gone to Tel Aviv and is proud of it."
However, he has now once again proved Iran wrong with his Olympic silver.