In a move that could have far-reaching implications across Iran's sports world, the International Judo Federation (IJF) has confirmed that Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei is seeking asylum in Germany after being forced to lose in a major international competition.
The news was first reported on August 30 by the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun[Japanese link]. IJF President Marius Vizer told the paper that in the recent World Judo Championships, in Tokyo, Mollaei purposely lost to Matthias Casse of Belgium in the semi-finals so as to avoid competing against Sagi Muki, an Israeli fighter. Muki went on to win the competition on Wednesday August 28.
Vizer said that Mollaei feared he and his family would be subjected to violence by the Iranian state had he advanced to face Muki in the under-81kg category, and that Mollaei asked the IJF for help. The IJF head also said he hopes Mollaei will compete in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo as a member of the Olympic Refugee Team.
In an interview on Sunday, September 1, Molaei denied that he'd asked for asylum from Germany. He also claimed that he received a long-term visa from Germany years ago. “I asked the International Judo Federation to help me so I can compete in Olympics competitions under the flag of the International Olympics Committee,” he said. Nevertheless, he did not deny or confirm that he might ask Germany for asylum in the future.
The Kiev connection
The incident is part of a decades-old tradition whereby Iranian political and sports authorities — to “defend the rights of the oppressed Palestinian people” — prevent their athletes from competing directly against Israelis, even if Israel goes on to win the competition as a result. But while it may be normal procedure for the Islamic Republic, the policy continues to be a source of major anxiety for Iranian athletes.
Former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar has the dubious honor of starting this tradition, in 1983, when Kiev — then a part of the Soviet Union — hosted the World Wrestling Championships. During the competition, Iranian Greco-Roman wrestler Bijan Seifkhani competed against Robinson Konashvili from Israel in the 74-kilo category, and won.
At first, Iranian media celebrated the victory. Velayati, however, ordered Seifkhani and his teammates to return to Iran immediately. Iranian wrestlers received the order late at night. The coaches went room to room, woke up the wrestlers one by one, and told them to pack their bags. Once back in Iran, all members of team — athletes and non-athletes alike, and especially Seifzadeh — were severely reprimanded.
The Iranian government then made a categorical announcement: No Iranian athlete was to compete against “Zionists” under any circumstances, whether in official competitions or unofficially. The justification was that Iran did not recognize Israel as a state and was defending the Palestinian people.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Iranian authorities continued to talk openly about “defending the Palestinian people” as their rationale for banning Iranian athletes from competing against Israelis. This so-called “golden age” came to an end, however, when the International Olympics Committee (IOC) updated the Olympic charter, making it clear that if an athlete refused to compete against other athletes on political, religious, racial or ethnic grounds, that athlete would be banned from international competitions.
The news rules also stated that the federation or Olympics committee of that country would be fined and/or banned from competitions.
'A general policy'
The last Iranian athlete to expressly refuse to compete against an Israeli opponent was judo fighter Arash Mir-Esmaili, during the 2004 Athens Olympics. Iran's flag-bearer for the opening ceremonies, he was also considered the country's best medal hope. But when Mir-Esmaili learned he would have to face an Israeli, Ehud Vaks, he disqualified himself by claiming he was overweight.
Iranian media, in contrast, had no qualms about telling the truth. A spokeswoman for the Iranian National Olympic Committee in Tehran acknowledged that Mir-Esmaili had been instructed not to compete, according to The Guardian. "This is a general policy of our country to refrain from competing against athletes of the Zionist regime and Arash Mir-Esmaili has observed this policy," she said.
Mir-Esmaili himself was quoted by Iran's official news agency as saying he refused to compete out of sympathy with the Palestinian people.
Afterwards, Iranian sports officials and media outlets gradually moved away from speaking openly about “defending the Palestinian people.” The pattern instead was for Iranian athletes to find other excuses to avoid direct competition with Israelis. They could feign injuries, for example, or lose the match before they were to meet their Israeli competitors.
Nevertheless, international pressure on Iran over its ban on competing against Israeli athletes did not disappear. Two years ago, during the World Under-23 Wrestling Championship in Poland, the coach for Iranian freestyle wrestler Alireza Karimi had some very strange words of encouragement: “Lose, Alireza! You must lose. Do not win, Alireza,” the coach — having learned that Karimi would next have to face Israeli wrestler Uri Kalashnikov — shouted during a match.
Karimi intentionally lost. And when he returned to Iran, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei personally invited him for a meeting and showered him with praise. But afterwards,
both the World Wrestling Union and IOC threatened Iran’s Wrestling Federation with expulsion.
Truth and consequences
Federation head Rasoul Khadem was the only high-level Iranian sports official who dared stand up against this policy and directly called on both the Supreme Leader and the Supreme National Security Council to change this unwritten law. For this, he was forced to resign.
Three days later, on March 3, 2018, Khadem issued a statement urging Iranian politicians not to sacrifice the country’s national champions to further their own political agenda. He said that he'd resigned because of what he described as “the politicization of Iranian sports,” and accused Iranian officials of “lying” and being indifferent to “Iran’s national champions” and their standing in the world.
Khadem also said that state officials seemed to regard the performance of Iranian athletes as no more than a kind of entertainment for the people. Reza Layegh, the Wrestling Federation's then secretary, chimed in as well, warning that if Iranian athletes again refused to compete against Israelis, Iran would be suspended.
On September 27, 2018, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued his final decree about the subject. “The Islamic Republic of Iran will not participate in sports competitions with the representatives of the usurper regime [Israel],” he said in a meeting with Iranian athletes who had won medals at that year's Asian Games, in Jakarta. “We believe that this approach by itself is the real championship, as was exemplified last year by Alireza Karimi.”
For the past two years, the IOC has called on the IJF and the World Wrestling Union to report any political interference by Iranian officials for preventing competitions between Iranian and Israeli athletes. Given the statements IJF President Marius Vizer made about Saeid Mollaei, the IOC might now have what it was looking for.
Iranian officials, not surprisingly, had their own take on Vizer’s statement. “Iranian sports officials believe that Marius Vizer, president of the International Judo Federation, has encouraged the Iranian Judo champion Saeid Mollaei to seek asylum,” tweeted Hiwa Yousefi, editor in chief of the Tehran newspaper Hamshahri.[Persian link] “They say that Vizer is a friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
He is, but there're more to the story than just that: Marius Vizer, an Austrian national, has also had friendly relations with a Revolutionary Guards general by the name Mohammad Derakhshan [Persian link]. Also, there are no Israeli members included in IJF's board of directors list.
If the report by the Asahi Shimbun proves to be true and Molaei does officially ask for asylum, not only would Iran's Judo Federation be in danger of suspension by the IJF, but the IOC could suspend all Iranian sports federations until further notice, including even the Iranian football and volleyball federations. Such a move would bar Iran’s sports teams from competing in international events.
The Iranian Fugitive Boxer Who Said No to the “Israel Ban,” February 25, 2019
Will Iranian Wrestlers Compete against Israelis?, September 4, 2018
Guards: Don’t Compete with Israelis or We’ll Break Your Legs, March 6, 2018
The Islamic Republic Already Recognizes Israel, December 5, 2017
Wrestler Forced to Lose to Avoid Competing Israeli, November 2017
Chess Grandmaster's Brother Also Abandons Iran, October 2017
Will Iran be Banned from the World Cup?, August 2017
The Fear of Competing Against Israel, February 24, 2017