An Iranian judoka who refused to return to Iran after reportedly being ordered to throw a match to avoid facing off with an Israeli is competing in Israel.
Saeid Mollaei has said he fears for his life if he goes back home following the episode in the 2019 Judo World Championships in Japan.
Israeli media has called his presence at the Tel Aviv games “historic”.
Mollaei is representing Mongolia in the two-day IJF Grand Slam in Tel Aviv.
After he arrived in Israel on Sunday, Israeli judoka Sagi Muki, who Mollaei says he was told to avoid competing against in Tokyo, posted an image on social media of the two of them with their arms around each other, with the heading: “Welcome brother”.
The two men could now face off in the Tel Aviv games.
“This is a great message to the world,” Muki told Israeli radio. “This is something that can even bring Iran closer to Israel. It simply shows how sports can bring together people and break boundaries.”
Israel’s Sport 1 website carried a homepage banner with the word “historic”, while YNet, one of Israel’s most popular news sites, described Mollaei as “courageous” and “heroic” for competing in the country.
Mollaei was granted refugee status by Germany after he defected there in the wake of the Tokyo games and has been allowed to compete under the Mongolian flag the by International Olympic Committee (IOC) since March 2020.
He previously said he was “afraid of what might happen to my family and to myself” if he returned to Iran.
Iran reacted with disdain at the news of his participation in the competition in Tel Aviv.
“This is not an honour but a stain of shame on your forehead that will stay with you forever, because you have turned your back on the ideals of the system, on your homeland, and are proud of it,” said Arash Miresmaeili, president of the Iranian Judo Federation.
Iran is appealing its suspension by the IJF, calling Mollaei’s allegations “false claims”.
The Islamic republic does not recognise Israel’s right to exist and its athletes are ordered to avoid encountering Israeli opposition in international competitions.