Israeli media hails 'historic' arrival of Iranian-born judoka

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Israeli media on Tuesday hailed as "historic" the arrival of Iranian-born former world champion judoka Saeid Mollaei, who now competes for Mongolia and has criticised the Iranian regime.

The 2018 world champion Mollaei was embroiled in a political row when he was reportedly ordered by Iranian authorities to throw a match to avoid facing off with the Israeli Sagi Muki.

Muki went on to win the 2019 world 81 kg title as Mollaei came third without fighting him.

Despite coronavirus restrictions, Israel is hosting an international judoko tournament that begins in Tel Aviv on Thursday, featuring some 600 athletes from 63 countries.

Israel's Sport 1 website celebrated Mollaei's arrival for the contest as "historic" in a banner homepage headline.

The influential Ynet site said it was "courageous" and "heroic" for an athlete born in arch foe nation Iran to compete on Israeli territory.

Muki posted an image on social media Monday of a February 2020 photo of him with Mollaei, captioned "Welcome Brother," and featuring Israeli, Iranian and Mongolian flags.

A short video released by the Israel Judo Association showed its president Moshe Ponte hugging Mollaei upon his arrival at Ben Gurion airport on Monday.

Mollaei is heard saying he was "pleased to be here".

In October 2019, the International Judo Federation said it had banned Iran from international competition over the country's refusal to allow its fighters to face Israeli opponents.

Iran said the ban was based on "false claims".

The judo tournament during the pandemic has however stirred controversy, with Israel's airport still closed to all but non-emergency travel.

Thousands of Israelis remain stranded abroad by the travel restrictions, with some voicing outrage in local media that hundreds of foreign athletes have been allowed into the country.

Aryeh Tzimet, a 46-year-old citizen stuck in Zurich where he had been visiting his sick father, told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper: "Athletes are allowed in with no problem and with no quarantine -- while I'm Israeli and I'm stuck here."