2015 World Cup

When I Met the Iranians: How International Wrestling Brings People Together

Photo By: Tony Rotundo

UPDATE: Iran has lifted their ban on the United States wrestling team, reversing their earlier decision.  For the time being, the World Cup is back on for Team USA.

With the Associated Press reporting today that Iran has decided not to allow the United States’ men’s freestyle team to attend the World Cup, scheduled for February 16th and 17th in Kermanshah, Iran, it seems that politics will once again intrude into international sport. While there is still time for a solution to be found, that seems increasingly unlikely given the rhetoric coming from the governments of both countries. Sport can so often be used as a way of finding common ground between nations that this sort of display is troubling. The sport of wrestling, in particular, has been the rare arena where the United States and Iran have come together. Now, that too is threatened.

I am one of many wrestling fans who has had personal experience with the incredible Iranian fans. At the 2012 Olympics in London, I was seated next to a group of them for one of the men’s freestyle sessions. It is easy to find the Iranian fans at international events. If you don’t see them waving their flag, you will certainly hear their trademark chant which consists of several rhythmic blasts on noise-makers followed by them all shouting their countries name in unison. If you’ve ever heard it, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If not, it sounds something like, do, do, do-do-do, do-do-do-do, E-RON! It is a staple and sure enough, as my wife and I took our seats, it was clear who we were sitting next to.

At the time, this concerned me a bit. I was in the Air Force back then, stationed in England, and I knew that Iran and the United States didn’t exactly get along. When you are stationed overseas as a member of the U.S. military, you receive a lot of briefings about not making your nationality too visible in the local community so as to keep a low profile and keep from becoming a target. When you travel, you are again reminded of the threats that exist and that broadcasting who you work for is not a good idea. So, you can imagine how I felt sitting down next to a group of people who were considered if not the enemy, certainly not friendly to Americans.

I had nothing to worry about. At first, I didn’t interact with the Iranians much. We simply sat and watched the competition with them talking amongst themselves, while my wife and I conversed separately. However, that changed when a controversial call went against an Iranian wrestler and the call was immediately challenged. I remember saying something to the effect of, “That should have been three for Iran” and the gentleman sitting to my left heard it. That sparked a conversation between us.

You need to understand that the Iranian fans that attend these international tournaments aren’t always like American fans. Where most American wrestling fans that go to an Olympic Games or another big event overseas are hardcore fans who have been around the sport forever, I have found that many of the Iranian fans are a little more casual. While they are amazingly passionate and support their wrestlers no matter what, they don’t always know the intricacies of the rules. That was the case for this group so, when I explained to them why I thought the call would go in their favor, they were quite happy to hear it. The call was over-turned and, now that they knew I had some knowledge and was willing to share, we spent the rest of the session talking quite a bit. I wouldn’t say that they knew wrestling, but they certainly loved it.

The ultimate test of our freshly-forged bond came when Jordan Burroughs took the mat for his gold medal final against Iran’s Sadegh Saeed Goudarzi. Even then, when Burroughs was just a one-time world champion, my Iranian friends knew who he was and had a great deal of respect for him. They badly wanted their man to win, but they knew it would be difficult. When Burroughs won, 1-0, 1-0, back in the best two-out-of-three periods days, they could not have been more respectful of the champ. They were certainly disappointed, but had nothing but good things to say about Jordan Burroughs and congratulated us as American fans repeatedly on the win.

There are so many things about that day I’ll never forget, but those Iranian fans made an impact on me. To be so passionate about the sport we all love and so willing to embrace a wrestler from a foreign country that their government has portrayed as the enemy for a long time was an incredible thing to witness. That was just another in a long line of good news for U.S./Iranian relations on the mat, but it appears we are about to suffer a setback off of it. I won’t get into the politics, as this is a wrestling site, but it is extremely disappointing that after nearly 20 years of our wrestling teams going to Iran and their teams coming here, all without a serious incident I might add, we find ourselves in this situation. I hope a last minute solution presents itself. If not, I hope we’ll get to see the Iranian fans again in Paris this August for the world championships. I can already hear the chant.