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Iran judo champ afraid to go home after disobeying order to withdraw from worlds to avoid Israel opponent

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TOKYO (AP) — A judo world champion from Iran is afraid to return home after disobeying orders from the government to withdraw from the world championships in Tokyo to avoid a potential bout against an Israeli opponent.

The International Judo Federation said late Sunday that Saeid Mollaei was ordered to withdraw from last week’s competition by Iranian deputy sports minister Davar Zani. The IJF said Mollaei was then called by Iranian Olympic Committee president Reza Salehi Amiri, who said security services were at his parents’ house.

Mollaei was the defending champion and could have faced Israeli athlete Sagi Muki in the final. They were the two top-ranked athletes in their class prior to the world championships. Mollaei said he was ordered to withdraw ahead of a preliminary bout against a Russian so it didn’t appear to be a boycott of Israel.

Mollaei kept competing but eventually lost in the semifinals and did not have to face Muki, who won gold and later called Mollaei “an inspiration.”

“I want to compete wherever I can,” Mollaei said in a statement from the IJF. “I live in a country whose law does not permit me to. We have no choice, all athletes must comply with it. All I did today was for my life, for a new life.

“I need help. Even if the authorities of my country told me that I can go back without any problems, I am afraid.”

The IJF said it would help Mollaei prepare for next year’s Olympics, also in Tokyo. If Iran refuses to enter him, one option could be the International Olympic Committee-backed team of refugee athletes.

Iranian sports teams have for several decades had a policy of not competing against Israelis, which the country does not recognize. The IJF has said Iranians have thrown matches and used “questionable injuries” to avoid competing against Israelis.

Mollaei’s case comes four months after judo officials hailed a breakthrough in relations with Iran, publishing a letter signed by Salehi Amiri pledging to “fully respect the Olympic charter and its non-discrimination principle.”

On Saturday, Iranian Sports Minister Masoud Soltanifar accused the IJF of trying to “create problems” with Mollaei, the IRNA news agency reported. He said Iran will send a protest letter to the IOC.

Iranian team manager Majid Zareian also criticized the IJF, saying “everything was set in advance to put Mollaei against a participant from (Israel).”

“They did not allow me to be present next to my athlete in exercise salon,” Zareian said. “After the competitions they changed hotel of Mollaei without my permission, against the regulations.”

He denied reports Iranian authorities had put pressure on Mollaei.

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MORE: Israel, judo federation hail letter from Iran; Tehran silent

Israel, judo federation hail letter from Iran; Tehran silent

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A letter from Iran over judo rules is being heralded by Israel and the International Judo Federation as a sign the Islamic Republic will allow its athletes to compete against Israelis.

However, Iranian media outlets on Sunday called the response “baseless” and “strange.” Iran’s local judo federation did not immediate answer calls for comment.

Iranian judoka, like other athletes, routinely forfeit matches with Israelis as Iran does not recognize Israel as a country.

The International Judo Federation posted the letter from Iran on Saturday night, which said Iran would “fully respect the Olympic Charter and its nondiscrimination principle,” without elaborating.

Moshe Ponte, the head of the Israeli Judo Association, told The Associated Press he welcomed “this courageous and correct decision” by the International Judo Federation to publish the letter.

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Runner miscounts laps, celebrates, passed for medal at European Champs

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Israel’s Lonah Chemtai Salpeter appeared to miscount the number of laps in the European Track and Field Championships 5000m final, thinking she had won a silver medal.

Salpeter crossed the finish line at 4600 meters, just behind Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan, and slowed down, putting her hands to her face as the bell rung indicating one lap to go.

After a few seconds, she turned to see the race was still going on, veered back to the inside of the track and accelerated.

Salpeter was passed by Brit Eilish McClogan and Turkey’s Yasemin Can ending up in fourth place, albeit a national record in 15:01. That national record was erased later when Salpeter was disqualified for a lane infringement at the start of the race.

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