As the Trump administration readies a new executive order limiting travel to the United States for citizens of seven mostly Muslim nations, Americans who value athletic contact with Iran say the restrictions should not apply to sports exchanges.
“The White House made it clear to the Olympic movement that there were going to be exceptions made for athletes participating” in international competitions, Rich Bender, the executive director of USA Wrestling, told Al-Monitor in an interview. Bender spoke just after returning from the 2017 freestyle Wrestling World Cup in Kermanshah, Iran.
The American team came in second to Iran, but Bender said the event was “the best I have experienced” in his 29 years with USA Wrestling.
“We were given fantastic treatment,” Bender said, noting the warmth of their welcome and the enthusiasm and knowledge of Iranian fans. “It was home ice for Team USA for every match,” Bender said. “They cheered as loud for us in all of our matches leading up to the finals as they did for the Iranians.”
He quoted US Olympic champion Kyle Snyder as saying that the experience was even better than winning Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro.
Jordan Burroughs, an Olympic champion from the 2012 Games in London, is a celebrity in Iran for his many matches with Iranians and the sportsmanship he displays.
Burroughs conceded to Al-Monitor that some members of the team were apprehensive about going to Iran at this time. He said that a number of his friends and relatives “were extremely worried about our safety” given the tense political climate between the two countries since the Trump administration took office and put Iran “on notice” for a recent missile test and other regional policies.
“It was a little nerve-racking,” Burroughs said. But “I knew what to expect” after a previous visit to Iran in 2013. “The love I felt from their wrestling federation, the athletes, the staff and the people of Iran was always amazing.”
The Americans almost didn’t get to go to Kermanshah. The abrupt announcement of the US travel ban on Jan. 27 caused Iranian authorities initially to rescind permission for the US team of 20 athletes and coaches to attend the Feb. 16-17 meet. After a federal judge in Seattle temporarily blocked the visa ban from being enforced and an appeals court upheld the decision, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced in a tweet that the American wrestlers would be able to come to Iran after all.
In a reciprocal gesture three days later, the US Embassy in Armenia said that visas had been issued for the Iranian archery team to send a group of 16 to Las Vegas for world championships in that sport. They won several medals.
Wrestling, an ancient sport revered by Iranians, holds a special place in US-Iran relations.
US wrestlers in 1998 became the first American athletes to travel as a team to Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Apprehensive at first, they were overwhelmed by their reception at Tehran’s Azadi stadium.
Despite political crosscurrents, American wrestlers have traveled to Iran another 15 times since then, and Iranian wrestlers have come 16 times to the United States for official competitions and goodwill exhibitions.
Bender, who has been to Iran three times previously, said the importance Iranians place on wrestling is especially gratifying for Americans who do not achieve the same sort of notice in their home country.
“We live in a world of a niche sport,” Bender said. “It’s so invigorating to go somewhere where wrestling is woven into the fabric of the country.”
He noted that on the last day of their visit, many of the team members went to Tehran’s landmark Milad Tower and found a tribute in a small museum there to Gholamreza Takhti, an Iranian wrestler known for his chivalry as well as for his achievements on the mat.
Takhti was a “pahlavan,” or champion, seen as a defender of the weak.
Bender, a wrestler in high school, called wrestling “the purest pursuit in all sports” whose practitioners are motivated by the desire to win for their country not “by fame or fortune.”
Because the sport requires no “exotic or elaborate equipment,” he added, it can flourish in countries that are not wealthy and attract a diverse group of ethnicities and individuals from all sectors of society.
Burroughs, who is from Lincoln, Nebraska, previously visited Iran in 2013 and has competed many times with Iranians. He is so beloved in Iran that the wrestling federation there invited him to come to the country with his family for a vacation. He said he would like to go but is hesitating because “I’m so popular that it would be almost overwhelming” to travel around Iran.
Iran, he said, is “so much different from what you’d expect from the media.”
Asked about his reaction to the travel ban, he said he felt a “wide range of emotions. I love the Iranian culture so much, the people and what they stand for as individuals.” At the same time, he said, “We live in a democracy. We have the ability to elect our public officials but also understandably the rules they pass down aren’t always agreeable.”
Burroughs noted that Iranians also “don’t completely agree with the rules their government makes.”
He said he knows that many Americans, including the new president, regard Iran as “extremely dangerous. … Obviously, Donald Trump sees Iran a little different than I see Iran.”
Much as ping-pong helped thaw relations between the United States and China 40 years ago, wrestling has played a role in promoting people-to-people ties with several adversarial nations. Russia is also a powerhouse in the sport, and American wrestlers traveled to the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War.
In 2013, the United States, Russia and Iran came together to lobby to keep wrestling in the Olympic Games.
These kinds of connections among athletes and sports federations are particularly important at a time of uncertainty in US foreign policy and rising nationalism and xenophobia in many countries.
“Wrestling is popular everywhere the US isn’t,” quipped Jack Clark, the director of the US Wrestling Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports the sport, in a conversation with Al-Monitor. “It’s our entree to all these difficult places.”