Israeli judoka Sagi Muki was visibly emotional as he sang his country’s national anthem from the winner’s podium at the Nippon Budokan Arena in Tokyo on Wednesday, having just become the first Israeli man to win the Judo World Championships.
The 27-year-old Netanya native bested Belgium’s Matthias Casse in the heavyweight final, winning a fifth Ippon—the Judo equivalent of a knockout—in six bouts with just a minute and 21 seconds left in the match.
A cadre of Israeli supporters sang along with Muki as “Hatikvah” played, including members of his family, who were bedecked in Israeli flags.
This is Muki’s first world title, after two gold medals at the European Championships in 2015 and 2018.
“I came close to losing but I gave it everything and I never stopped believing. I’m glad I managed to keep up the pressure,” he said after the win. “This is my first time (as world champion) and it’s a very special moment for me. I finally did it. It was a tough day.”
Muki faced some tension in his quarter-final match, as his Egyptian opponent, Mohammed Abdelaal, refused to shake his hand after losing the match.
“Sports can bring out the very best. Sadly, it can also remind us how far we have to go,” said U.S. special envoy Jason Greenblatt on Twitter in response to the snub. “Congrats to Israel’s Sagi Muki on becoming the World Judo Champion. Condolences to Mohamed Abdelaal who lost 2x today—once as an athlete and once as a decent person.”
There was also some doubt as to whether Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei would forfeit a match against Muki, as Iranian athletes have done when pitted against Israelis in the past. But Mollaei lost in the semifinals and was never matched against the Israeli judoka, also losing his battle for the bronze medal and therefore avoiding having to share a podium with an Israeli.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated Muki on Twitter, saying the judoka was “bringing a lot of respect and pride to all of us.”
Speaking with Muki via video chat, Netanyahu invited him to the Prime Minister’s Office. Muki accepted, saying it was “a privilege to represent Israel.” JN