The Sports Rabbi Joshua Halickman’s Exclusive Interview with Israeli Judoka World Champion Sagi Muki breaking his silence about his Iranian counterpart was published in The Jerusalem Post.
JUDO CHAMPION MUKI TO ‘POST’: I WANT TO COMPETE AGAINST IRANIAN, HUG HIM
The 27-year-old Israeli, who captured the gold medal in the under-81-kilogram competition at the World Judo Championships last week in Tokyo, broke his silence on Sunday concerning Mollaei being whisked away to Germany amid rumors of him throwing matches and seeking asylum.
In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, Muki spoke about Mollaei’s extenuating situation, going into the political and sports ramifications, as well as the relationship between Israel and Iran.
On Sunday, Mollaei spoke to the Iran International news outlet based in London about being forced to lose his final two bouts so as not to face Muki or share the podium with him. Mollaei also discussed his desire to compete at the highest level possible, with his goal being to win a gold medal at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“But I came to compete for real, not to put on a show… I will compete in the Olympics under the Olympic flag,” he said.
While declaring his love for Iran, Mollaei also expressed regret that he may not be able to compete for Iran. Mollaei also noted that he has had a visa and a residence in Germany and was not seeking asylum, saying that reports to that effect were fabricated.
“I’m not moving to Germany,” said Mollaei. “I did not ask for asylum, and I’m not a refugee. I own an apartment in Germany.”
“I’m very sad about the situation that Mollaei is in,” Muki told the Post from his hotel in Tokyo. “I know how hard an athlete trains, and when an opportunity is taken away because of political reasons, it’s very painful. Mollaei is a great person and from what I can see, he is also a great athlete. He doesn’t deserve to be treated this way.”
Asked whether, at the time of the fight, he believed that Mollaei had lost on purpose, Muki was unsure.
“I didn’t really know if he had lost on purpose, and once the bout went into the Golden Score [judo’s three-minute tie-breaker], I thought he for sure wouldn’t lose on purpose. But being under the huge amount of pressure that he was, you just don’t know what one will do in that situation.”
Mollaei maintained that, for him personally, it’s most important to compete at the highest level, and going forward, to win the gold medal at the Olympics. Muki concurred with that approach.
“I agree with him, because if you want to be an Olympic champion and world champion, you want to win every fight,” said Muki. “When you can’t compete because of politics, it puts you at risk. It’s difficult to handle the situation when he knows that he can’t fight against someone due to political pressure, which is outside the arena of sports. Mentally that’s a big challenge when it doesn’t depend on your own performance.”
Muki also offered his opinion on whether this incident could help put an end to the Iranian boycott of Israeli athletes.
“I think that we are living in a time where there are many changes that are going on in the Middle East,” he said. “Back in 2014, everyone thought that we wouldn’t be able to go to Abu Dhabi and compete. But the following year, in 2015, we were there, and I won a bronze medal, although we didn’t have our flag represented. In 2018, when we returned to Abu Dhabi and we not only were able to display the Israeli flag, but I won the gold medal and Hatikvah was played.
“Judo is not only a sport that can bring about the normalization of relations with Iran, as we saw in Abu Dhabi, but we also saw that they really like us and they don’t hate us,” Muki continued. “The Iranian government is extreme.”
In Muki’s semifinal bout, his Egyptian opponent, Mohamed Abdelaal, refused to shake hands after being defeated. Muki saw this as a sign of disrespect not only to him, but to the entire sport.
“I have never spoken to [Abdelaal] and it’s too bad he turned his back to me because he also turned his back on the sport,” said Muki. “Judo is all about honor and those types of positive qualities. This is how I was raised and brought up, no matter who the rival is or where they are from. No matter what happened, I felt more sad than frustrated as I was really hoping he would shake my hand, and we could show the power of sport.”
Muki can empathize more with what Mollaei is dealing with.
“It‘s a very frustrating situation and what he is doing is a huge step,” he said. “He is showing that he wants to be a free person and go on his own journey on his own path without a barrier or an obstacle in his way.”
The Israeli world champion would rather focus on what role he can play in promoting peace.
“I want to be an ambassador of peace between Israel and Iran,” Muki said. “I have two dreams. One is to win the gold medal at the Olympics. But I also dream to face Mollaei, and it doesn’t matter who wins. I want to shake his hand, give him a hug. This way, we will not only show honor for each other, but together we can show that sport is above everything else.”
For now, Muki is still reveling in his accomplishment on the mat in Japan.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be a champion and to win the first men’s judo gold medal for Israel; it’s historical,” he said. “It’s been hard for me to say that I am the world champion, but it was the culmination of a huge dream for me. I am happy that I was able to reach this achievement, and the feeling couldn’t be better.”
He is even prouder to attain this success while representing Israel on a global scale.
“Of course, when I go abroad to compete I want to win, but for me to represent Israel is like being an ambassador,” Muki said. “We are such a small country and to be able to be the best that I can be gives me a lot of motivation. When I won the gold, there were about 30 Israelis in the arena and they gave me so much strength that I felt as if there were the 4,000 people who were behind me earlier in the year in Tel Aviv. This gave me the power to battle and win the world championship.”