She is Clarisse Agbégnénou. If we were talking only about medals, it is likely that her name would have been awarded anyway. The Frenchwoman was the only athlete to have won the world and Olympic titles in the same year. To top it all off, Clarisse can boast of not having lost a single match since 2019. This year she has participated in three tournaments, which is not many, but she has selected them with caution: masters, world championships and Olympics. This is the data, cold and accurate. For us the important thing is elsewhere.
Clarisse has been the best in her category, -63kg, for five years. She has ensured that Teddy Riner is no longer exclusively talked about when it comes to French judo. Now she is also an audience leader. Clarisse helps others through numerous plans and social actions, like many, some will say. True, but she does it based on her personal experience, so she gets more involved. She has star status, but is still close and talks to everyone. Lastly, she remains a rage on the mat. Hers is a powerful judo, strong, full of will and that force that fuels her to know what she wants. She exercises her dominance with elegance, she has class and we don't know of any journalist who speaks ill of her. Clarisse arouses sympathy wherever she passes and her tears are streams of honesty. No one was insensitive to her Olympic title, not even her rival and friend Tina Trstenjak. That hug between the two in the Tokyo final was the victory of judo, Clarisse's living will. When she is around, everything is fine and when she is not she is still present because her absence weighs like a boulder. She keeps things running smoothly, leaves no room for surprise and that doesn't bother us, even though it should. The day she really leaves will be like a divorce for the children and then we will take out the photo album to keep her close. In reality, Clarisse has plenty of what many others will never have and that is charisma.
He is Saeid Mollaei. He was born in Iran, lives in Germany and competes with a Mongolian passport. He does not have, by a big margin, the record of Clarisse, although he was world champion in 2018. This year he has won medals, but no titles. However, for us he is the man of the year.
Saeid is a man of honour, his word is sacred and the facts prove it. What Saeid has experienced is something unusual, especially in the world of sports, not because of what happened but because of how he reacted. Many regimes oppress and athletes are also victims. Saeid decided to stand up to a government, a state, on principle, because it was fair and he wanted to be free. That story is known, but it is his and for him it will never end. What has ended this year is the anxiety towards the need to do things well, to thank those who were always on his side, especially in the hardest moments. Saeid had fought with his judo for two years, not able to display his immense talent. The defeats were mounting, the frustration was mounting. So instead of lamenting and resigning himself, Saeid made a promise, that of an Olympic medal. It was not a secret, he promised it out loud and repeated it after each failure. Tokyo was for him the absolute redemption, the payment of a moral debt with parents whom he cannot see, some friends who take care of him and ensure his safety, a wife who is the mast to which he clings in the middle of the storm.
Saeid arrived in Japan almost incognito. His category, -81kg, is more unpredictable than a casino roulette wheel. There were others, fitter apparently during the year, younger, with fewer moral scars and no weight on the conscience. Saeid was the one who had to cross the desert without help and with hardly any water. That was Tokyo for him. When he won his semi-final against the Austrian Borchashvili, those present cried more than he himself and we feel sorry for his rival, but it was the promise finally fulfilled and with an ippon made in Mollaei. It meant an infinite relief, the oasis at the end of the road, the ultimate reason for all his decisions. Saeid is a good man who has suffered what no athlete should experience because that is not sport. He always wanted to stay away from politics and practise judo without understanding that everything is politics, even if we don't like it. In the end his award was silver because Saeid did not find the key to open the lock of Japan’s Nagase, but it was the tastiest silver of his career, shared by all and respected as if it were gold. His was a winding road.
That is why Clarisse and Saeid are our chosen ones, because they have something else, the ability to make people cry with simple acts, because they are driven by personal impulses and non-negotiable values. It is an everyday fight. Doing it with class and without leaving the script is within the reach of very few.