Saeid Mollaei has been in hiding since he left the Iranian judo team last month, saying he had been ordered to withdraw from the world championships on political grounds. Now he’s training for next year’s Olympics without a guarantee he can compete.
Mollaei was the defending world champion, and Israel’s Sagi Muki his biggest rival for the gold medal. There was one problem — Iran has a policy of boycotting all competitions against Israelis, even if that means an athlete’s training was all for nothing.
Mollaei told The Associated Press he was ordered to lose a preliminary bout against a Russian in order to cover up the reason for his withdrawal. When he refused and won, he received more intimidating calls from senior officials. “For once, I decided to live as a free man for myself, and prove to the world that I am a brave man,” Mollaei said in a recent interview in Germany, where he’s living in an undisclosed location.
“I did this for my human soul. For myself. I wanted to practice and compete with freedom, with peace of mind,” said Mollaei, speaking in Persian. “I didn’t want to worry about whom to compete with and whom not to compete with. I’ll compete with anyone, to honor the Olympic charter.”
In the end, Mollaei lost a bronze-medal bout and didn’t face Muki, who won gold. The International Judo Federation, which is supporting Mollaei, said he received demands to withdraw from an Iranian deputy sports minister, embassy staff and the head of the Iranian Olympic Committee.