When the Olympic Games kick off in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 5, 64 Iranian athletes will be competing, among them 12 wrestlers.
Alireza Moradi, the head of the cultural committee for the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Wrestling Federation, told Al-Monitor in an email that Iran — which won nine medals in wrestling at the last Olympics — has high hopes for Rio in both the freestyle and Greco-Roman categories.
“We are optimistic about earning medals in Greco-Roman, counting on a couple of gold, and in freestyle we have two top wrestlers — Hassan Rahimi and Reza Yazdani — who are medal contenders,” Moradi said.
Rahimi, 27, who is competing in the 57-kilogram division, won an Asian championship for juniors in 2008, and in 2009 he became junior world champion. Two years later, he took the bronze at the world championships, and in 2013 he became a world champion. Yazdani, 31, is a two-time world champion (in 2011 and 2013) in the 96-kilogram division and took silver in the 2015 world championships in Las Vegas.
“Our biggest challenge will come from Russian and American wrestlers,” Moradi told Al-Monitor. “Only one top Russian wrestler was disqualified due to doping charges; the Russians will have their full roster and will be a challenge for us.”
Bahman Baktiari, executive director of the International Foundation for Civil Society, a Salt Lake City, Utah, nonprofit that facilitates US sports exchanges with Iran, told Al-Monitor that Yazdani “has the biggest challenge in front of him. To win a gold medal he must defeat the top American wrestler, Jordan Burroughs, who won the gold in 2012 London Olympics.”
Yazdani, who is known in Iran as the "panther of Mazandaran," has also had to overcome injuries to get ready for Rio, Baktiari said. “Yazdani won the Olympic trial in Tehran by defeating another top wrestler and now is looking to go against the world's top wrestler in the Rio Olympics. If Burroughs wins the gold in Rio he will be the third wrestler in history to have won two golds in consecutive Olympics.”
The other members of the Iranian team in freestyle are Meisam Nassiri, Alireza Karimi and Komeil Ghasemi. Members of the Greco-Roman team are Hamid Sourian, Omid Norouzi, Saeid Abdevali, Habibollah Akhlaghi, Ghasem Rezaei and Bashir Babajanzadeh.
Wrestling is extremely popular in Iran, and the country has been a powerhouse in the sport since ancient days. The sport has also become an important element of Iranian “soft power” and figured in people-to-people diplomacy with the United States.
American wrestlers in 1998 became the first US athletes to compete in Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and have returned to Iran repeatedly for competitions and exhibition matches. Many Iranian wrestlers have also visited the United States repeatedly. In 2013, American, Iranian and Russian wrestling federations joined to oppose a decision by the International Olympic Committee Executive Board to end wrestling as a core sport in the Olympic Games.
The Semnani Family Foundation, a Utah-based nonprofit set up by Iranian-American entrepreneur Khosrow Semnani, was instrumental in the campaign to keep wrestling in the Olympics. This year, the foundation is offering cash awards to US and Iranian wrestlers who win medals in Rio and also to their coaches. Gold medalists will get $20,000, silver medalists $10,000 and bronze medalists $5,000, with their coaches receiving $5,000, $3,000 and $2,000 respectively.
“Wrestling is an essential Olympic sport and tradition,” Semnani said in a press statement. “It’s a competition where excellence and sportsmanship combine in a culture of fair play. As an Iranian-American I am proud of the way athletes from my birth and adopted homelands strive for excellence while building mutual respect and bonds of friendship. These incentives, I hope, will strengthen not only the sport of wresting, but the friendship between the citizens of the two countries.”
Asked by Al-Monitor if the Iranian team was concerned about the prospect of contracting the Zika virus in Rio, Moradi said, “Our medical team has held special training sessions for our wrestlers, and we have informed them about taking precautions and carrying anti-mosquito repellents with them.”
Wrestling competition begins Aug. 14 in the second week of the Olympics.