Winning silver in Tel Aviv, Iranian judoka ‘will never forget Israeli kindness’

In a historic achievement, Iranian dissident judoka Saeid Mollaei won a silver medal Friday at the Grand Slam international judo competition held in Tel Aviv.

Mollaei took second place in the under-81kg category after losing to Uzbekistan’s Sahrofiddin Boltaboev.

The Iranian competed under the Mongolian flag after becoming a citizen of the Asian nation. He fled his home country after being forced to lose a match on purpose to avoid facing Israel’s Sagi Muki in 2019.

Ahead of his second-place finish, Mollaei said Israel had been “very good to me since I arrived,” CNN reported Friday, citing comments conveyed by the International Judo Federation.

Iranian-born Mongolian judoka Saeid Mollaei (white) competes against Uzbekistan’s Sharofiddin Boltaboev during the finals of the men’s under 81kg category of Tel Aviv Grand Slam 2021 in the city of Tel Aviv, on February 19, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

He said the Israeli judo team “have been very kind. That is something I will never forget.”

Meanwhile Muki, a world champion, was surprisingly ejected from the competition in the first round on Friday morning.

Another notable achievement Friday was by Israeli Tohar Butbutl, who won the bronze in the men’s under-73kg category.

Israel’s Tohar Batbul (white) competes against Romania’s Alceandru Raicu in the men’s under 73kg category of Tel Aviv Grand Slam 2021 in the city of Tel Aviv, on February 19, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Thursday saw several achievements for female Israeli athletes, with Timna Nelson Levy winning a gold medal while Gili Cohen took silver.

“It’s fun to win here in the country, it’s just too bad there isn’t a crowd, because our crowd is the best in the world,” Nelson Levy said after winning gold, thanking the Israel Judo Association for “managing to hold one hell of an event” amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Cohen also managed to reach the finals in the under-52 kilogram weight class but was beaten by Brit Chelsie Giles.

Israeli world champion judoka Sagi Muki, right, and Iranian champion Saeid Mollaei embrace at the Paris Grand Slam, February 10, 2020, in an Instagram photo posted online by Muki. (Instagram screen capture)

Some 600 athletes from all over the world arrived in Israel to participate in the contest. The seemingly rule-bending event sparked controversy among Israeli health officials as well as among travelers angered by the airport closure for nearly all other cases.

Organizers said it had been impossible to cancel the tournament after Israel committed to hosting it.

Competitors underwent virus tests and remained in closed pods and isolated during the entire event.

Judo is one of Israel’s strongest sports, with Israeli judokas taking home five of the nine Olympic medals won by the country.

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