The last time Saeid Mollaei competed in an international judo match in Tokyo, it was 2019. Mollaei was number one in the world for his 81kg weight class, having assumed the title of world champion the year before. “I felt I could do it again this year,” he told reporters at the 2019 World Judo Championships. Yet the team leaders in Mollaei’s native Iran had other ideas.

Iran bans its citizens from competing against Israelis in any setting. Ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has refused to recognize Israel and allows no ties with the Jewish state. Iran funds and arms terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas, which are dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, publicly praises Iranian athletes who refuse to compete against Israelis, and calls for Israel to be “wiped off” the map.

In 2020, Iranian legislators drafted a bill that would enshrine in law Iran’s prohibition against competing against Israeli athletes. The bill hasn’t passed yet, but Iranian officials continue to make it clear that Iranian athletes risk punishment for them and their families if they dare compete against Israelis in international competitions. The consequences can be severe.

After Iranian women’s soccer player Shiva Amini was photographed wearing Western clothes while out of the country, she was harassed and threatened by Iranian officials. “SMS messages, such as ‘We will cut your head off and send a picture of it to your family,’” filled her phone. (Amini fled to safety in Switzerland.)

Last year, Iran executed a 27-year-old wrestler named Navid Afkari, who’d taken part in an anti-government demonstration. Amnesty International called his death a “travesty of justice.” In the decades since 1979, no Iranian athlete has competed against an Israeli on the international stage.

The 2019 World Judo Championships in Tokyo would be no different. Saeid Mollaei recalls “the orders (not to compete against Israelis) came from Iran and went to the coach of the team. I had to comply with the orders. Not only I, but the whole world knows what sort of consequences there would have been had I refused. So I complied with the law to avoid any problems for myself or my family.”

As he advanced throughout the competition, it became obvious that Mollaei would face off against an Israeli wrestler, Sagi Muki. The orders came through to Mollaei: throw the match to avoid qualifying for the final fight.

A recording of the 2019 championship clearly shows the pressure Mollaei was under. “Based on my stance, that of the regime and that of the Minister, he has no right to compete,” the president of Iran’s Judo Federation can be heard saying. “The circumstances stipulate that one should never question this stance. Make him (Mollaei) understand that he has no right to compete under no circumstances. He is responsible for his actions.”

Mollaei had no choice but to comply, and he threw his next fight, deliberately losing to Matthias Casse of Belgium. “Everyone saw how I performed,” he later explained, “to make sure that it was 100 percent certain that I would lose – and there is film footage to back this up. I put on a show; I just wanted the fight to end.”

He lost the fight and exited the competition, but Mollaei was so upset he didn’t want to return back home to Iran. He already had a visa to Germany, after having competed in Germany previously, so instead of flying home Mollaei flew from Tokyo to Germany. He eventually applied for asylum and is now a citizen. He works as a judo coach in the western German city of Monchengladbach. Mollaei also became a citizen of Mongolia, and gained a spot on Mongolia’s Olympic Judo team to compete in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

Earlier in 2021, Mollaei travelled to Tel Aviv to participate in the Judo Grand Slam competition, representing Mongolia. The experience was liberating. For the first time, Mollaei was able to compete as a sportsman with no ulterior motives, free to do his best without political constraints telling him whom he can fight. “I’m competing only for Mongolia,” Mollaei told Israeli television during his visit. “I no longer compete for Iran. That part is over for me… I've always been a sportsman. I’ve never engaged in politics.”

Mollaei also became friends with Israeli judoka Sagi Muki, the athlete he’d been told not to face off against in 2019. “He supports me and I thank him for this,” Mollaei told German journalists soon after fleeing to Germany in 2019. “I hope that we can one day extend our friendship (by competing in judo). It doesn’t matter who wins, what matters is friendship.”

Sagi Muki and Saeid Mollaei competing in Tel Aviv, Feb 2021

As the Tokyo 2021 Olympics got underway, another Judo competitor, Fethi Nourine from Algeria, withdrew from the Olympics rather than face Israeli athlete Tohar Butbul, ranked sixth in the world.

Sagi Muki was eliminated in the quarter finals of the Tokyo Olympics, but Saeid Mollaei went on to victory, ultimately winning the Silver Medal in the 81kg Judo category. At this emotional moment, Mollaei dedicated his victory to the Jewish state. “Thank you to Israel for all the good energy,” he declared: “This medal is dedicated to you as well and I hope Israel is happy with this victory.” Adding the word for thanks in Hebrew, Mollaei concluded with a heartfelt message to Israelis around the world: Todah.