BERLIN (Reuters) - An Iranian judoka is refusing to return home over fears for his safety after he ignored orders from his national federation to pull out of fights to avoid a potential final meeting with an Israeli, the International Judo Federation said on Monday.
The IJF said Saeid Mollaei was pressured by Iranian authorities to drop out of his quarter-final and semi-finals at the world judo championships in Tokyo last week to avoid fighting Israel’s Sagi Muki in the final.
“I need help. Even if the authorities of my country told me that I can go back without any problems, I am afraid. I am afraid of what might happen to my family and to myself,” he said in an IJF statement.
The IJF said Mollaei had been repeatedly ordered to withdraw from fights to avoid the chance of bouts with Israelis, both by the country’s National Olympic Committee and the government, and that security personnel had been sent to his home in Iran.
“A few minutes prior to the (quarter-final) contest, the Iranian coach received a call from his country,” the IJF said on its website. “On the other side of the line, the Iranian first deputy minister of sport, Davar Zani, gave him the order to withdraw Mollaei from the competition to avoid a potential contest between Iran and Israel.”
The IJF said the president of the Iranian national Olympic Committee then also contacted Mollaei ahead of his semi-final, which the athlete lost, to tell him to pull out.
“Saeid Mollaei is currently under risk and the IJF is looking forward to finding the best solution to allow a champion to continue to do what he does best: to compete no matter what and without any kind of discrimination,” the IJF statement said.
The International Olympic Committee said it would look into the matter. “After learning about the case, the IOC has requested a full report from IJF,” a brief IOC statement said. “Based on this report we will further evaluate the situation.”
Iran’s Olympic committee could not be reached for a comment.
This is not the first time athletes from Arab nations or Iran have been ordered to pull out or refuse to compete with Israeli athletes in Olympics or other international competitions.
At the 2004 Athens Olympics, then-Iranian world champion Arash Mirasmaeili refused to fight Israeli judoka Ehud Vaks, earning praise back home. At Rio de Janeiro 2016, Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby was sent home after refusing to shake the hand of Israeli Or Sasson following the end of their bout.
Since its Islamic Revolution in 1979 Iran has refused to recognize Israel and the two have been arch-enemies for decades.
“Today, the National Olympic Committee of Iran and the Sport Minister told me to not compete, that I had to comply with the law,” Mollaei said in the IJF statement.
“I am a fighter. I want to compete wherever I can. I live in a country whose law does not permit me to. We have no choice, all athletes must comply with it. All I did today was for my life, for a new life.”
He said he was not planning to return to the Islamic Republic at the moment for fear of his safety and had asked IJF President Marius Vizer to help find a solution.
“First we will solve the situation of Mollaei, after we will deal case-by-case (of other Iranian athletes),” Vizer said on Twitter. “Our top priority is always to protect our athletes.”
Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Mark Heinrich