By Ben Church, CNN
Updated: Fri, 19 Feb 2021 14:31:39 GMT
Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei, who refused to return home after being ordered to withdraw from the 2019 World Judo Championships to avoid facing an Israeli opponent, says he will never forget the kindness he's been shown by the Israeli judo team as he prepares to compete in a major tournament in Tel Aviv.
Mollaei said he had feared for his safety and that of his family after ignoring Iranian officials two years ago, who he says told him to lose his semifinal bout on purpose.
Iranian athletes have long been prohibited from competing in any sport against Israeli opponents because Iran refuses to acknowledge Israel's right to exist as a state.
Mollaei has not been back to his native country since. He was granted asylum in Germany in August 2019 and has become a citizen of Mongolia.
Now competing under the Mongolian flag at the Tel Aviv Grand Slam, Mollaei could have faced the man he says he was ordered to avoid, Israeli judoka Sagi Muki, who tweeted a picture of the two men embracing after Mollaei arrived in Israel on Sunday along with a caption that read: "Welcome brother."
On Friday, Mollaei battled past Russia's Aslan Lappinagov and will now face Uzbekistan's Sharrofidn Boltaboev in the final.
"They have been very good to me since I arrived. Today I have trained with the Israeli team and they have been very kind. That is something I will never forget," Mollaei said earlier this week, per the International Judo Federation (IJF).
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2019 World Championship
Back at the 2019 World Championship in Tokyo, Japan, Mollaei says his coach received two calls from Iranian authorities ordering his fighter to pull out of the tournament to avoid the possibility of meeting Muki in the final.
The 29-year-old ignored those warnings but went on to lose in the semifinals of the competition -- a result he says was affected by the emotional stress caused by the Iranian officials' request.
"I wanted to win, but it wasn't an option," Mollaei told CNN Sport in 2020. "I thought to myself if I violate it, it will be the end of my career and there will be many other bad consequences for myself and my family."
At the time, the president of Iran's Olympic Committee Salehi Amiri said the fighter and his family "will not and have not faced any threats or danger."
However, the IJF decided to suspend Iran from competing in international competitions following the incident, saying it was in breach of multiple codes. Iran is appealing this decision at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
The Swiss court did not immediately respond to CNN's question as to when CAS would publish its decision on Iran's appeal.
Israel welcomed Mollaei on its official Twitter account on Thursday, writing: "We'd like to give a warm welcome to Iranian Judoka Saeid Mollaei who arrived in Israel to train with the Israeli team ahead of the Tel Aviv Grand Slam Competition!"
However, the president of Iran's Judo Federation Arash Miresmaeili says Mollaei's presence in the competition has shamed Iranians on the world stage.
"This is a big shame for our fake athlete who is competing under the Mongolian flag which has caused the suspension of 90 thousand Iranian Judo players," Miresmaeili told IRNA.
"Many of our youth who in this past year alone could have brought honor to our country in international assemblies have been deprived from such honor from competing because of this individual's actions.
"Much blood has been shed for the defense of Islamic Iran and many families have lost their youth. It's regretful that someone, for his own personal gains, has turned his back to his homeland."
The Iranian Judo Federation was not immediately available for CNN's request for comment.