Iran Wins 2017 Freestyle Wrestling World Cup
Iran defeated the United States to take the gold medal in wrestling’s World Cup on Friday, winning a match that politics almost prevented.
Olympic silver medalist Komeil Ghasemi beat American Nick Gwiazdowski 5-0, giving Iran a 5-3 win in the gold medal final. After the match, they politely shook hands in front of a rowdy crowd in the western Iranian city of Kermanshah.
Ghasemi then held an Iranian flag above his head before placing it in the center of the mat, dropping to his knees and planting his face on the flag.
The two countries have a friendly relationship in wrestling, but that was put to the test in recent weeks. Iran said it would stop American citizens from entering the country, in retaliation for “hostile policies” of the U.S. government.
Those policies were U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive orders barring travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, from entering the United States. But federal courts blocked Trump’s ban, allowing Iran to lift its reciprocal ban and the American team to travel to the World Cup.
USA Wrestling sent the first American sports team to compete in Iran in nearly 20 years in 1998, when freestyle wrestlers competed in the Takhti Cup in Tehran.
American wrestlers have competed in Iran for the Takhti Cup nine times, while USA Wrestling said it has hosted teams from Iran in the United States 16 times since the 1990s.
(Frank Pingue for Reuters)
U.S. Wrestlers Find They Have Passionate Fans in Iran
When the United States wrestling team arrived at 3 a.m. on Saturday at an airport hotel outside Iran’s capital, Tehran, staff members ordered out for pizza.
“We were all over the lobby, eating out of the boxes,” said Rich Bender, the executive director of Team USA. The wrestlers had just flown in from the western Iranian city of Kermanshah, where the team lost the Freestyle Wrestling World Cup to Iran, in a series of thrilling matches.
At a time of increasing tension between the countries, how were the athletes received and what did they think about Iran?
Kyle Snyder, an Olympic gold medalist, said his mother had been a bit worried when he told her he would travel to Iran. But he said the team was welcomed with nothing but friendliness.
“They gave us roses at the airport, brought our bags, everyone wanted to take selfies with us,” Mr. Snyder said. “This was the best tournament I have ever participated in, even better than the Olympics in Rio.”
Later on Saturday, during a sightseeing trip, the wrestling team took to the landmark Milad Tower in Tehran, and excited Iranians took pictures of the team.
Jordan Burroughs, an Olympic champion, said he has more fans in Iran’s capital “than from any other city.”
For a time, it had seemed the American wrestlers would be forced to stay home. After President Trump announced that Iran would be included in a travel ban, the country decided it would reciprocate by barring the team. But the Iranian authorities changed their minds after seeing numerous protests in the United States against the ban.
Mr. Burroughs said that he was disappointed when he heard of the issues with the travel ban. “I don’t necessarily agree with all decisions by my government, and clearly not with this one,” he said of the now-halted order barring travel by Iranians and citizens of six other predominantly Muslim countries to the United States. “I have never been affected by terror, but here in Iran, I have never felt any ill will toward me — the opposite actually.”
Iranian fans cheered the American wrestlers during matches against competitors from Azerbaijan, Russia and Georgia. “They were just screaming Jordan, Jordan, all the time,” said Bill Zadick, the team’s head coach, about Mr. Burroughs. “Jordan has defeated some of their heroes in key matches in the past, so they look up to him.”
Mr. Bender has accompanied the team on four trips to Iran. “We never had issues, as I recall,” he said.
American wrestlers did not make their first trip back to Iran after the 1979 revolution until 1998. But since then, they have visited the country more than a dozen times.
Wrestling can be a highly emotional sport, Mr. Bender said, but the athletes realize they are viewed as ambassadors of their country. “This is a highly competitive, mano a mano sport,” Mr. Bender said. “Sometimes people get poked in the eye. People can get angry. So we stress that here it is extra important to keep your posture, shake hands. Luckily, all the guys understand they represent the U.S. on and off the mat.”
Iran’s wrestling federation sent a former wrestler to the hotel to protect the team members in case someone might not be a fan. But there, as during the event in Kermanshah, all of the Iranians they met were all smiles. It was hard to believe, someone said, that Iran is anti-American.
“Is it true there is a mural in the city center that says ‘death to America’?” Mr. Bender wanted to know. “Because I haven’t noticed any of that.”
(Thomas Erdbrink for The New York Times)