September 2, 2019 / 10:16 AM / 14 days ago

Judo-Iran judoka pressured not to fight Israeli, refuses to return

BERLIN, Sept 2 (Reuters) - An Iranian judoka was pressured by his country's authorities to throw a world judo championships semi-final in Tokyo last week so as to avoid fighting an Israeli opponent, the International Judo Federation said on Monday.

The IJF said Saeid Mollaei was told to lose his earlier round matches to avoid a final encounter against Israel's Sagi Muki.

"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 the athlete ahead of his semi-final which the athlete lost, to tell him to pull out.

This is not the first time athletes from Arab nations or Iran are told 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.

"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 Iran 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 when asked about the case.

"Our top priority is always to protect our athletes."

Neither the Iranian Olympic Committee nor the International Olympic Committee could be immediately reached for a comment. (Reporting by Karolos Grohmann Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)

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