I was at the Doha Masters judo tournament in the Qatari capital when a photo of the event I posted on Instagram received a like from Saeid Mollaei, the former Iranian judoka who had fled his country after refusing to throw a fight in order to avoid competing against Israel's Sagi Muki.
Mollaei, the 2018 judo world champion, was representing Mongolia in the prestigious tournament and I seized the chance to watch him train before he potentially met Muki, now a firm friend, in the semifinals.
“Salam,” said Mollaei in greeting, accompanied as always by the former coach of Iran’s national team Mohammad Mansouri, who was also forced to flee his homeland due to threats on his life.
After exchanging pleasantries, Mollaei started his rigorous training session, somehow managing to maintain a steady stream of conversation.
“Can you tell me the date of the Grand Slam [judo competition] in Tel Aviv?" Mollaei asked me with a smile. "I really want to come. I have heard Israel is a beautiful country."
Mollaei fled Iran in 2019, after the Iranian union tried to pressure him to deliberately lose in the semi-finals of the Tokyo Judo World Championship, so that he would not face Muki in the finals.
This incident led to Mollaei and Muki becoming close friends and the president of the World Judo Association Marius Vizer to take the Iranian under his wing.
Despite Vizer’s tutelage and care, Mollaei has been hit hard by his ordeal physically, emotionally and financially.
It was most apparent when French judoka Teddy Riner, who is considered one of the best in the world, entered the training area accompanied by an entourage fit for a prime minister.
Mollaei, who cannot even afford to bring with him a sparring partner, stood and watched. Although at least had me - his very own dedicated camera crew.
Throughout his training, Mollaei occasionally lifted his head, saw me taking a snap, smiled and gave me a hopeful thumbs up.
This man - who has been through so much, who only wants to do what he loves best - proved throughout his training that he will never give up.
We ended our meeting with a selfie and a warm greeting for Muki.
“I hope that one day all the residents of Iran and Israel will live together in peace and friendship, and we will be able to visit each other,” said Mollaei with his ever present smile.
Muki eventually won bronze and Mollaei was out in the quarterfinals, but I am sure he will pull himself together and keep fighting to be the best of the best.
Sadly, he will do so while ever looking apprehensively over his shoulder, knowing that there are still those from his homeland who wish him harm.