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Judoka wins silver medal for Mongolia after fleeing Iran for political reasons

Saeid Mollaei of Mongolia celebrates with his silver medal during the award ceremony for the men -81kg judo match at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, Tuesday, July 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

TOKYO -- A judoka who won the silver medal in the men's 81-kilogram class at the Tokyo Olympic Games on July 27 as a Mongolian national after fleeing from his home country of Iran for political reasons, says the Olympics provided him with a chance to return to Japan after two years.

    Takanori Nagase of Japan, at left shakes hand with Saeid Mollaei of Mongolia after defeating him to win the men -81kg final of the judo match at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, Tuesday, July 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

    Saeid Mollaei, 29, was formerly a refugee from Iran. It was the 2019 World Judo Championships held at the Nippon Budokan hall -- the same venue as the Tokyo Olympics -- that prompted him to flee home.

    "There have been a lot of issues since that time," Mollaei said. "But I didn't mean to say goodbye to this place (Nippon Budokan). I managed to come back after two years." Though he was defeated by Japan's Takanori Nagase, 27, in the final, Mollaei smiled with the medal he clinched.

    During the world championships in the summer of 2019 in Tokyo, the Iranian government instructed Mollaei to withdraw from the event when his winning streak led to the growing possibility of him facing Israeli judoka Sagi Muki at the final. Iran has been at loggerheads with Israel for many years, and has not recognized it as a nation, either. There have been numerous cases of Iranian athletes being forced to pull out from international sports events to avoid facing Israeli athletes.

    Mollaei, however, ignored the instructions and continued with his bouts at the world championships. As he advanced, the pressure from the government grew. He was shaken when told that public security officers were waiting at his parents' house. Mollaei lost the semifinal match and then the bronze medal match, too. Muki went on to win the championship.

    Having defied the government's instructions, Mollaei fled to Germany. When he made it public that he had been pressed to withdraw from the event, media around the world reported his story. Though the Iranian side denied the allegations, the Iran Judo Federation was suspended from international competitions except for some events including the Olympics. Mollaei came back to international competitions initially as a member of the refugee delegation, but he managed to obtain Mongolian citizenship at the end of 2019, and won a berth at the Tokyo Olympics by representing Mongolia in judo.

    Israel's Sagi Muki, who served as a trigger for Mollaei to flee Iran, also participated in the Tokyo Games. Though Mollaei had said, "Going up against him at the Olympics final is my dream," that dream did not come true this time -- Muki was eliminated earlier. Still, Mollaei commented, "Now I can face anyone in judo. In the future, I want to compete with him."

    (Japanese original by Jun Kaneko, Foreign News Department)

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