For decades, Iranian athletes have at times gone to great lengths to avoid meeting Israeli opponents. In 2017, an Iranian wrestler was cruising to victory against a Russian opponent in a major competition when his coach, aware an Israeli awaited in the final, suddenly instructed him to throw the match. Within moments, the Iranian, Alireza Karimi-Machiani, was flopping on the mat as the Russian piled up points.
And in 2004, an Iranian gold medal favorite, Arash Miresmaeili, turned up several pounds overweight at the weigh-in for his match against an Israeli at the Athens Games. The violation offered Miresmaeili the cover of disqualification, rather than a refusal to compete. He is now the president of Iran’s judo federation.
Mollaei’s defection was not the first time an Iranian champion has rebuked the country. Last year, the only female athlete to win an Olympic medal for Iran announced that she had defected because of “hypocrisy, lies, injustice and flattery.” The athlete, Kimia Alizadeh, 22, announced her decision in an Instagram post accompanied by a photo from the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, where she won a bronze medal in taekwondo.
“My troubled spirit does not fit into your dirty economic channels and tight political lobbies,” she wrote at the time. “I have no other wish except for taekwondo, security and a happy and healthy life.”
Alizadeh later turned up in the Netherlands, and earlier this year she was granted refugee status in Germany. She is expected to compete in European qualifiers for the Tokyo Olympics.
“This decision is even harder than winning the Olympic gold,” Alizadeh wrote of her defection last year, “but I remain the daughter of Iran wherever I am.”