Thu, Feb 21, 2013 - Page 18 News List

Iran and US find common ground: wrestling

AP, TEHRAN

On Monday, US wrestling officials agreed to create a special committee charged with seeking to save Olympic wrestling, which will remain in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, but it must compete against seven other events — including squash, roller sports and wakeboarding — for one open slot in the 2020 Games, which have yet to be awarded to a host city.

Iran has also said it is looking to join wrestling’s “big powers” to reverse the IOC decision. Last week, Iran’s wrestling federation and its Olympic committee said they would send a protest letter to the IOC.

The independent Etemad newspaper ran a report that described the “axis” of wrestling — Iran, Russia and the US — as joining forces to keep the sport in the Olympics.

For Iran, it is a mission of serious importance. Wrestling is considered by many to be something of a national sport — not as popular as soccer or with the deep Persian roots of polo, but one that gives Iran a chance to shine in international competitions. Wrestling also is Iran’s major medal sport at the Olympics.

Iran won three gold medals, the country’s first in the Greco-Roman division, out of six overall in wrestling at the London Games and the US took two gold medals out of four overall.

“Do we destroy our historical sites which are symbols of humanity? No. Then, why should we destroy wrestling?” Iranian gold medalist Ali Reza Dabir said shortly after the IOC decision on Feb. 13.

In the current 14-team World Cup in Tehran, the US is joined by other freestyle wrestling powers including Russia and many of the former Soviet republics.

Last week, Alexander Mamiashvili, the head of the Russian wrestling federation, said Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered a committee be formed to contest the IOC decision.

Despite the shared dismay over wrestling’s Olympic snub, Iran’s state media had only limited reports on the arrival of the US wrestlers — perhaps linked to the official anger over the sanctions that have hit Iran’s critical oil exports and blacklisted the country from international financial networks.

The cool reception is in distinct contrast to the almost celebrity welcome given in 1998 to the first US wrestlers who competed in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that collapsed ties between the two countries. Washington cut relations after the US embassy was stormed, leading to 52 Americans being held hostage for 444 days.

US sports team now make occasional appearances in Iran, but the two countries often compete together in international events.

There have also been some false starts.

In 2009, Iran invited the US women’s badminton team to compete in a tournament, then denied them visas by saying there was not enough time to process the applications. In late 2011, Iran bowed out of an invitational table tennis exhibition tournament in Qatar that included the US, North Korea and Pakistan.

The US has sent more than 30 athletes to Iran under a sports exchange program launched in 2007, while more than 75 Iranian athletes and coaches have visited the US.

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