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Political foes USA and Iran join fight to save wrestling
In a rare alliance, wrestling authorities and athletes from the United States and Iran have joined forces to demand that their sport be reinstated into the 2020 Olympic Games' programme.
American and Iranian athletes held hands and smiled before cheering crowds last week, in an unusual show of unity between two states that cut diplomatic ties more than three decades ago.
The United States and Iran have long quarrelled over Israel and the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme, but wrestling leaders from both countries have joined to protest the International Olympic Committee’s recent decision to drop the sport from the 2020 Olympic Games.
At the start of the Wrestling World Cup, hosted in Tehran from February 21-22, uniformed men beamed smiles while standing behind a long banner that read: “Olympics without wrestling! never never” in both English and Farsi.
“We need the backing of Iran and Russia… to preserve wrestling, and this goes beyond politics… Iran is one of the powers in wrestling and can defend the game’s credibility,” said Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling, according to the ISNA state news agency.
Echoing Bender’s appeal during the tournament in Tehran, the head of the Iranian Wrestling Federation, Hojatollah Khatib, said he hoped the “unprecedented unity” between the two feuding countries would spur the IOC to reverse its decision.
Iran and Western powers have agreed to hold talks in Turkey on March 18 and Kazakhstan in April, to discuss easing sanctions in return for curbing sensitive nuclear activities.
In the past, Washington has put Tehran on warning over plans to build a nuclear weapon, but the latter has denied any such aims.
While miles apart on an array of subjects, the US and Iran have found common ground on the wrestling mat. The sport is hugely popular in both countries, but especially in Iran, where it is virtually the national sport.
The wrestling tradition in Iran dates back to the 6th century BC, with manuscripts describing epic bare-handed confrontations between Persian kings and their enemies.
The home-grown enthusiasm for the sport has translated into international success in high-level competitions. Thirty-seven of Iran’s 60 Olympic medals in the past six decades have come from wrestling. In the 2012 London Olympics, Iran won three gold, one silver, and two bronze medals in the discipline.
It also topped last week’s world championship, with Russia coming in second and the USA in third place.
Iran even boasts a professional wrestling league. However, the sport is off limits for women in the Islamic state.
One reason for hope
While getting wrestling back on the 2020 Olympic program will be an uphill battle, there is reason to hope the rare joint US-Iran lobby can make a difference.
The sport has joined seven other disciplines that are now competing for a single slot –the “additional sport” category– that will be selected during a May meeting of IOC officials.
A final ruling will come in September during the IOC’s session in Buenos Aires. During that gathering, officials will also pick the host city of the 2020 Games among three finalists: Istanbul, Madrid and Tokyo.