Iran, judo, Saeid Mollaei, hiding
Luka Maisuradze (white) of Georgia and Saeid Mollaei (blue) of Iran compete in the Men's -81kg bronze medal bout on day four of the World Judo Championships at the Nippon Budokan on August 28, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)
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Iran banned after pressuring judoka to withdraw to avoid facing Israeli athlete

Iran, judo, Saeid Mollaei, hiding
Luka Maisuradze (white) of Georgia and Saeid Mollaei (blue) of Iran compete in the men's 81kg bronze medal bout of the World Judo Championships on Aug. 28, 2019 in Tokyo. Mollaei was told he had to withdraw from the event in case he had to face an Israeli athlete. He remained in the tournament but is now in hiding in Germany.  (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)

The International Judo Federation banned Iranian athletes from its events in September, after the country pressured one of its top top judokas, Saeid Mollaei, to withdraw from the Judo World Championships out of fear of matching up with an Israeli athlete in a later round.

The practice of boycotting or withdrawing to avoid facing Israel has drawn the attention of the governing bodies in sport, and some are cracking down.

Due to the longstanding tension between the two countries, Iran has ordered its athletes to boycott any match where they could face off with an Israeli athlete. 

Iran was banned for failure to follow the Olympic Charter. In a statement, the IJF said Iran’s actions are in “gross contradiction” to what Iranian leaders agreed to with the IJF in May. 

“By means of this letter, we would like to confirm that the I.R. Iran NOC shall fully respect the Olympic Charter and its non-discrimination principle and the I.R. Iran Federation shall fully comply with the Olympic Charter and the IJF Statutes,” the statement read.

Mollaei was preparing to face Russian Khasan Khalmurzaev in the semifinals of Pool A at the championships in Tokyo. His coach received a call from the Iranian government ordering Mollaei to withdraw from competition. According to, the order also came with a threat to his family. 

The Iranian government saw that Israeli judoka Sagi Muki was breezing through Pool C, and believed that there was a chance that Mollaei and Muki could meet in a later round. 

Mollaei decided to keep competing, defeating Khalmurzaev and Canadian Antoine Valois-Fortier to win Pool A and advance to the semifinals where he lost to Belgium’s Matthias Casse, avoiding the potential matchup with the Israeli Muki, who won the world championship. 

As Mollaei advanced further in the tournament, the threats from the Iranian government grew.  Mollaei decided not to return to his country and sought refuge in Germany with the support of the IJF.

“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.”

This isn't the first boycott of Israel or an Israeli athlete due to longstanding anti-semitism from surrounding Muslim and Arab countries. The Arab League, whose members are comprised of of Arab states in and around North Africa, organized its boycott of the pre-established Jewish state in 1945, shortly after the creation of the league, and has continued the boycott ever since.

When Israel won gold in a 2017 international judo competition thanks to the performance of Tal Flicker in Abu Dhabi, UAE officials refused to show the Israeli flag or play the national anthem during the awards ceremony.

In July 2018, the IJF cancelled two separate grand slam judo events in Tunis, Tunisia, and Abu Dhabi because the countries refused to recognize the Israeli flag.

Other instances include:


TJ Mathewson is a senior sports journalism student at Arizona State University