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Judo Boss Offers Olympic Lifeline To 'Threatened' Iranian Champion

Saeid Mollaei, Iran's judo star who decided to seek asylum abroad rather than refuse to compete with Israeli athletes. File photo

Tokyo, Sept 1, 2019 (AFP) -

Iranian judo star Saeid Mollaei, who claimed he was ordered to deliberately lose a world championship fight, could compete under a different flag at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the sport's governing body said Sunday.

International Judo Federation (IJF) president Marius Vizer has thrown his support behind former world champion Mollaei, who complained he had been instructed by Iranian authorities to throw a match in Tokyo last week to avoid facing Israeli Sagi Muki.

"It is our mission to protect our athletes -- that's clear," Vizer told AFP.

"We will do our best that he will compete in the Olympic Games. Later we will see in which team -- there are different options, but one of them will be applied for the Olympics."

Iran does not recognize Israel and Iranian passports remind holders in bold red they are "not entitled to travel to occupied Palestine".

Vizer was quoted by local media as saying that Mollaei had told him pressure was being exerted on his family in Iran, prompting him to lose to Belgium's Matthias Casse in the semi-finals of the men's 81-kilo class.

Vizer also told Japan's Asahi newspaper he wanted Mollaei to fight under a refugee flag at Tokyo 2020.

Mollaei fled to Berlin where he was thought to be seeking asylum, but the 27-year-old Tehran native denied that claim later Sunday, adding he hoped to compete in IOC colors next summer.

"I've had a German visa and I'm in Germany to stay away from the rumors," Mollaei told the London-based Persian language channel Iran International.

"God forbid something would happen to my family. But I serve my country and whatever medal I get belongs to Iran, whether it's under the Iran or IOC flag," he added.

"I feel sorry that maybe I won't be able to compete for Iran again. But I didn't train this hard just to put up this show of losing."

'Special situation'

The IJF will issue a statement on Monday, Vizer confirmed, insisting: "First of all we will do everything to support the athlete so he can continue his career and participate in the Olympic Games."

Vizer added that an emergency meeting would be convened to investigate whether Mollaei and his family had been the victim of political coercion or threats and subsequently to decide whether to punish the Iranian judo federation.

"It's a part of life and part of the surprises that can happen," said Vizer.

"But we have rules. Everything has to happen according to the statutes of the international federation and the Olympic charter.

"Some countries have different rules -- they can apply those rules in their country, but not at an international sports event," he added.

"It's a special situation. We have to live with that and act accordingly."

Israeli judo chief Moshe Fonti told Army Radio that Mollaei "intended to continue the contest, even if he had to face Sagi Muki".

The Times of Israel reported that Fonti added: "From what we understand... Iranian intelligence officials came both to his home in Iran and to the judo arena and warned him."

'Everything was set'

Among some of the more colorful online and social media fallout, it was claimed Vizer had booked a car to whisk Mollaei from the world championship venue in Tokyo to the airport in a daring escape.

Iran's Fars news agency accused Mollaei of pre-planning his defection, quoting Iran's judo head coach Majed Zarian as saying: "Everything was set in advance -- someone in Iran must have helped him."

There have been previous examples of Iranian athletes being told to lose to avoid facing Israeli opponents, most notably wrestler Alireza Karimi, whose coach was caught yelling "Alireza you must lose, the Israeli won" in a video that went viral in 2017.

Karimi was suspended for six months for throwing his bout, while his coach was banned for two years.

Vizer insisted his support of Mollaei was a question of "sporting values" and not politics.