It could have been a tense moment when Israeli Sagi Muki and Iranian Saeid Mollaei met in the weighing area just before heading to the mats for the World Judo Masters competition in China. But to the surprise of the assembled athletes and managers, Mollaei embraced his Israeli rival, Muki, and called him “friend.”
Israel’s Ynet news portal reports that after a brief chat, the two world-class judokas entered their respective matches on a high.
The Iranian black belt champion did not rule out a possible visit to Israel in the near future, and added: “Praying that all Iranian athletes can compete freely against others.”
Muki had hoped to meet the Iranian in the final, a fight that could have been the first championship showdown between Israel and Iran. But Mollaei lost his first fight against the Italian fighter and had to withdraw from the competition.
Mollaei, who defected from Iran, was officially representing Mongolia. He spoke about the fact that he is now free to compete against athletes from all countries, including Israel. “I pray that it will be the case for all Iranian athletes and that we can compete against the Israelis unhindered,” he said to Moshe Ponti, chairman of the Israel Judo Association, according to Ynet.
Ponti spoke about the surprising warmth between the two athletes. “This meeting once again demonstrated that the entire process that started last year and was led by the President of the World Judo Association together with the Israeli Minister of Culture and Sport, Miri Regev, has brought about positive results. It was fun to see how Moulay appreciated this. We also hope that Mollaei will help open the way for all Iranian athletes,” he said.
A former world champion, Mollaei was forced by the Iranian regime to withdraw from the last world championship in Tokyo after it became clear he might have to face the Israeli. Immediately after, he fled to Germany and sought political asylum.
The World Judo Association responded by indefinitely banning Iran from all competitions until it lifts the ban on competing against Israeli athletes.