Sat, Mar 14, 2009 - Page 18 News List

Iranians tighten grip on US wrestlers in Tehran arena

REUTERS , TEHRAN

US wrestler Michael Zadik, right, fights with Iranian Mostafa Hosseinkhani during the Takhti Wrestling Cup at the Azadi stadium in Tehran on Thursday.

PHOTO: AP

Iran gained the upper hand against its old foe the US in the sporting arena on Thursday, winning most medals in a wrestling contest that coincides with talk of a possible thaw in bilateral ties.

Six US wrestlers are taking part in the two-day Takhti Cup at Tehran’s Azadi sports complex, together with athletes from Cuba, Iraq, Turkey and other countries.

The first two Americans to enter the competition lost their opening matches against Iranian opponents, drawing loud cheers from a small but enthusiastic crowd in the 12,000-capacity indoor stadium.

Even though one of them later went on to win a bronze medal, Iran dominated the first day of competition with a haul of 10 out of 12 medals at stake.

“We’re getting off to a slow start ... we made some pretty critical mistakes,” US head coach Zeke Jones said after the two US defeats in the morning session.

But, “it is always a wonderful opportunity to compete with the Iranians. They are such a great wrestling country. It is one of the best tournaments in the world,” he said.

In a major shift in US policy, the administration of new US President Barack Obama has offered to engage Iran in direct talks if the Islamic Republic “unclenches its fist.”

Iran has reacted cautiously, saying it wants to see real change in US policy after the administration of former US president George W. Bush’s drive to isolate Tehran.

Jones suggested that sporting encounters such as the Takhti Cup could improve ties: “Wrestling is a common bond for the people of America and Iran,” he said.

The US cut off diplomatic ties with Iran nearly three decades ago but the two nations have at times put aside their differences when it comes to sport.

About 20 US wrestlers and their coaches came to Iran to compete in the same tournament in January 2007 and an Iranian basketball team played in the US last year.

“It was definitely a fair match,” said US wrestler Michael Tamillow after he lost against Rasoul Tavakoli in the 96kg freestyle event. “It feels good but I wish I had won.”

The two athletes hugged each other after the match.

Tamillow later won a match against another Iranian opponent to take the bronze medal.

The second match seemed more tense, a disappointed Michael Zadik declining to speak to reporters after his defeat against Mostafa Hosseinkhani in the 66kg weight class.

Since 2006, 75 Iranians including basketball and table tennis players have been to the US under an exchange program.

But last month, Iran did not issue visas for a US women’s badminton team to compete in the country, a move the Obama administration at the time called “unfortunate”.

Jones praised his hosts: “The Iranian people are wonderful. They make you feel more like a rock star than anything else.”

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