Iranian judoka Saeid Mollae (C) and Israel Judo Association head Moshe Ponte (R) (Israel Judo Association) (Israel Judo Association)
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Saeid Mollae arrives in Israel to participate in the Tel Aviv Grand Slam. He fled Iran after being forbidden from competing against Israel.

By Yakir Benzion, United With Israel

Former Iranian judo star Saeid Mollae arrived in Israel this the weekend and received a warm welcome at Ben Gurion Airport from the Israel Judo Association, which is hosting the renegade athlete who defected from Iran after he was forced to quit a tournament rather than compete against an Israeli athlete.

Mollae was the reigning world champion in the 81 kg category, but Iranian authorities forced him to avoid facing Israeli champ Sagi Muki at the World Championships. In response, Mollae fled Iran and has been living and training in Europe, deciding recently to compete for Mongolia.

Following the incident, the International Judo Federation in 2019 suspended Iran from international competition “until the Iran Judo Federation gives strong guarantees and prove that they will respect the IJF Statutes and accept that their athletes fight against Israeli athletes.”

As a result, the Iranian judo team will most likely not be at the Tokyo Olympics later this year.

Since the incident, Mollae and Muki have become good friends, with Mollae saying, “It doesn’t matter who wins, what matters is friendship.”

Mollae landed in Israel Sunday evening, ahead of his participation in the Tel Aviv Grand Slam on Thursday. He was met at the airport by IJA president Moshe Ponte, who greeted the Iranian judoka with a big hug.

“When I saw Saeid Mollae and his coach Muhammad, I got as excited as I have not been for a long time,” Ponte told Channel 12 news. “This is a completely different excitement, this is a historic moment for this amazing, brave and nice man that everyone loves – and in Israel we also love him very much – and he is a real hero and a real competitor.”

“The whole world knows him, we made history by bringing hearts together and bringing Saied from Iran to Israel, and I wish there would be peace between the two peoples,” Ponte said.

“I’m really happy to be in the competition,” Mollae said English. “Thank you for everything and the welcome, all the best to all Israelis – take care of yourself.”

Moullae was then transferred to a hotel for coronavirus isolation and testing to allow him to train ahead of the tournament. In addition to Mollae and his coach, there were another 150 people on the flight, most of them Jewish athletes and coaches from around the world who also arrived for the Grand Slam.

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