How Israeli and Iranian Judo Champions became Friends.
Exclusive interview: Sagi Muki, Israel’s Olympic gold contender and World Judo Champion, speaks about his unlikely friendship with Iranian athlete Saeid Mollaei.
Israeli Judo star Sagi Muki has made the news for his victories both on and off the judo mat. In August he was crowned world champion in his under 81kg category and is now a favorite for an Olympic gold medal. And Muki achieved something beyond sports that many thought impossible: he befriended Iranian judokoist Saeid Mollaei.
“Last year was amazing,” Muki told Aish.com. “Every time the audience stands for the Hatikva, it brings me great pride, but becoming a Judo world champion and the first Israeli to achieve that was the best moment of my career.”
Sagi Muki, Israel's first Judo World Champion
And Muki is just getting started. This year, the new world champion not only dominated his weight category, but won more events than any other athlete across all categories in the sport.
His success creates pressure for the 27 year old to follow in the footsteps of windsurfer Gal Fridman, who netted the country's only gold medal to date, in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Athens.
“One of my jobs is to handle that expectation, deal with the pressure and keep my head. While staying professional, I know what I want to achieve, and basically, right now all of my efforts are focused on Tokyo.”
Meeting Saeid Mollaei
At the World Championships in Tokyo, August last year, Muki was meant to meet reigning world champion Saeid Mollaie in the quarter finals, but the Iranian was told by his coach to forfeit the match rather than go up against an Israeli competitor.
“When I first saw him, I really wanted to say hi to him but I didn’t want to put him in a risky position. I knew he couldn’t speak with me when he was competing.”
Mollaei toed the line of the regime, quit the competition, surrendering his title in the process. Later he expressed his frustration with his country’s boycott of Israel.
“I want to compete wherever I can,” Mollaei said. “I live in a country whose law does not permit me to.”
Saeid Mollaei and Sagi Muki
In a bold show of defiance, angry at how politics had interfered in sports, he resigned his citizenship, fled Iran, seeking refugee status in Germany. In October 2018, Iran was banned indefinitely from international judo competitions for refusing to let its athletes fight Israeli opponents.
When Muki went on to win the World Championship, Mollaei tweeted, “Congratulations Champion.” In reply, Muki wrote back, “Thank you. You are an inspiration as a human being and as an athlete.” The exchange continued with Mollaei thanking Muki for his support, counting him as one of “his best friends.”
“Saeid is a kind man, a great sportsman, and is greatly respected and admired in the sport,” Muki told Aish.com. “We grew up in different places, and in a different way, but what we both want is to live, to enjoy what life has to offer. This is how our relationship had been from the start. We respect each other. I don’t judge him because he is from Iran. I judge him on how he speaks and how he behaves.
“He is a brave, courageous leader in my eyes who stood up to break barriers down. He stood up not only for Iranian athletes, but for all athletes, and for all people to be free.”
Meeting in China
Mollaei has since been granted Mongolian citizenship, and the two men met for the first time since the 2019 World Masters in China.
“He came over to me, hugged me and for the first time we spoke freely.” When a photographer asked to capture the moment, they both agreed, but soon after Muki rushed to prevent the picture being spread.
“I was afraid for him and didn’t know where this picture might get to. I told the photographer, ‘Don’t send it anywhere.’ The last thing I wanted would be to endanger him or his family." Mollaei reassured him since he was no longer officially representing Iran, he felt there was no risk to him and the picture made yet more headlines. Since this first meeting, the two athletes also met and were recently photographed together at the Judo Grand Prix in Paris, "reaffirming their friendship and mutual respect."
“I want the world to understand this. To learn from this story that sports should overcome politics.” It is a message Muki says he intends to spread after the Olympic Games.
“I will always extend my hand in friendship and respect. These are not only the values in Judo, I have an amazing family who have always taught me to respect the other person. It does not matter who they are, where they are from black or white, Arab, Muslim, Jewish or Christian. I was raised on these values.
“I would love to show Saeid my country and to meet his family. I spoke with him about this possibility, and I hope he will come at some stage. I am sure he will love Israel. Many of my Israeli friends have told me they have gifts waiting for him for when he arrives.”
Both ranked in the top eight in their category and there is a strong possibility that Muki and Mollaei will face each other at the Olympic Games this summer.
“It would likely be in the quarter finals or further, and actually it would be a dream to meet him in the final. On the judo mat each man is fighting for himself and his dreams, whatever the result, our friendship would send an important message.”
Israel and the Arab World
In a sport with leading competitors from across the Middle East, Muki is used to the politics. With moderate Arab nations increasingly interested in thawing relations with Israel, Muki has become something of a vanguard. In 2018, his victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix led to Israel’s national anthem being played publicly for the first time in an Arab country with which it has no official relations. Israel’s Minister for Culture attended the medal ceremony and was shown around some major sites in the United Arab Emirates.
Each time, a judoka opponent refuses to face him, as has happened on several occasions, the country is reprimanded by international sports bodies, and the issue of Israel’s recognition arises again. Being a front man for Israel on the world stage comes with great responsibility.
“I know, I can have a big influence and people are looking to how I act. I want to change preconceived conceptions people have about Israel. To show that we are a strong nation, and that we want to live in peace. I love to speak about this and after my career in Judo, I will have more time for that.”
Winning in Life
“True respect comes from thinking about how others feel. My father always taught me never to lose sight of the other person. I spent my youth winning events and standing on podiums yet every time I won a gold, my father would say ‘Put the medal in your pocket and think about what it will do to the other boy who lost.’ I think about this all the time. At the end of every tie, I try to remember each time to show understanding and think about how my opponent is feeling.
“The victory is not the medal, it is the road we take in life, and how we put into practice all that we have absorbed and learned along the way.”