Wrestling Diplomacy: How one sport is teaching the world how to fight for unity
By: Jonny Ruggiano
“Sports transcend politics. We are competitors on the mat, but there is an undeniable respect that we each have for each other because of the sacrifices that we’ve made to reach that level. There are so many barriers between us. Distance, culture, language, and the desire to win the same gold medals. But on that podium the only feelings that exist are thankfulness, appreciation and respect.”
Wrestling is one of the oldest combative sports known to man. Historically heroes have battled for honor against other nations, teams, tribes and clubs. The sport is practiced across the globe and in many styles; both traditional and Olympic. Yet it was the chance of losing the Olympic dream that brought the true nature of wrestling to the forefront of world consciousness. On February 12, 2013 the international wrestling community was shocked to hear that wrestling was voted out of the Olympics. It did not take long for a coalition to develop and the world of wrestling to unify to bring one of the original sports back to the Olympic stage. On September 8th, 2013 wrestling was voted back into the Olympic Games.
Now, four years later, a travel ban of citizens from seven nations into the United States, once again put USA and Iran’s wrestling hopes at risk. However, the United States and Iran unified once again through wrestling.
Initially Iran banned US citizens from entering their country as a reciprocal measure. This has a detrimental impact on United World Wrestling: The Olympic governing body for wrestling. Wrestling’s premier goodwill competition, The Freestyle World Cup, which takes place February, 16-17 in Kermanshah, Iran. After the US travel ban and Iran’s decision to counteract, it seemed that the World Cup was doomed to have one of it’s top teams miss the competition. Efforts were made by both the USA and Iranian wrestling federations to have considerations made for the sport. The Iranian government even created a special committee to determine if USA would be allowed in. This past Friday news came in that team USA would not be allowed to receive entry into Iran.
The Iranian Wrestling Federation continued to persevere and asked for a reconsideration. This morning, the Iranian government gave word that the United States would be allowed to enter Iran and compete at the World Cup. Iran’s Hassan Rahimi, Rio Olympic bronze medalist and former World Champion expressed his excitement in regards to USA’s inclision to the tournament and having a complete World Cup, “We are happy that all the teams could participate in the tournament. It will make the tournament more exciting and interesting.”
What is it that makes wrestling so important to the United States and Iran? More important, how can the rest of the world learn from the solidarity that wrestling seems to cherish?
Olympic Champion Kyle Snyder clearly understands its implications, “The rivalry with Iran is healthy because of the common respect we share for each other as wrestlers. We are two of the best teams in the world at wrestling, and there is a reverence of ability between us.” As the youngest American to win both a World and Olympic title, Snyder has faced his Iranian counterpart many times in his storied career. Snyder understands the authenticity of this relationship, “Wrestling is unique because the countries that the United States has difficulties with are the countries we compete against the most. Russia and Iran are two of the best countries in the world at wrestling, and there is never any hostility between the Americans and other countries while we compete.” This relationship does not come easy, yet through wrestling’s diligence, the world becomes united.
The wrestling relationship between the USA and Iran is a harmonious, challenging and extremely advantageous one. No one understands this better than Hooman “Mo” Tavakolian. Iranian born, American raised, Tavakolian has been instrumental as a liaison for both wrestling and US, Iranian relations. As the United World Wrestling’s liaison for Iran on Sports Diplomacy and an active member of UWW’s Sports for All Commission, Tavakolian has united USA and Iran in their common love for the sport. “Being part of both Iranian and the American wrestling community has been a blessing. I understand the culture of Iran, and how things are done. I understand the language, the culture, the politics. This all has helped me greatly in sensitive situations and discussions. Sometimes messages can be lost in translation, so its my job to take messages and communications that may be perceived harsh messages and smooth the edges and deliver it to the other party.”
Tavakolian knows first hand the influence wrestling has on the Iranian culture. “Iran has a rich history and culture of wrestling which dates back centuries. The sport of wrestling is engraved in the culture and literature. Wrestling is practically part of every little kid’s live growing up in Iran, including mine. Wrestlers are highly respected in society. The whole world respects Iran’s wrestling culture, they compete with the utmost respect and sportsmanship. Iran has one of the most passionate fans and spectators.” It is easy to see how the Iranian nation would fight to keep it’s sacred sport out of harm’s way of becoming a political casualty.
As last week’s travel ban set off a whirlwind of diplomatic frenzy, Tavakolian was back to work for United World Wrestling. It is human nature to have conflict. Nations find themselves at ends against one another over many issues, yet wrestling has always served as a vehicle for diplomacy. The purity of sport manifests itself in the competitive nature of wrestlers.
Politics can often upend that purity. Wrestling can help offer perspective to the true nature of the competitive spirit and how it serves as a beacon of light through dark times. This impact resonates throughout international wrestling. Jordan Burroughs is one of the United States recognized celebrities and one of the most decorated wrestlers of all time. As a leader of USA Wrestling, the Olympic gold medalist has competed against Iran both on American soil as well as in Iran. “Iranians are truly the greatest wrestling fans in the world. I wrestled in the World Cup in 2013 and it was one of my most memorable experiences as an athlete. We were rock stars.” In 2013 wrestling fans cheered for Burroughs as he stepping into Iran to wrestle, in 2014 the same sentiment was displayed at the Los Angeles, Forum. During the bronze medal dual, you could hear Iranian fans throughout the arena chanting, “USA, USA, USA.”
The rivalry between USA and Iran is long standing. Both politically and in wrestling. Yet in wrestling, we see earnest communication. Wrestlers leaves everything on the mat and honors their opponents when the battle is over. Wayne Boyd, co-founder of the Titan Mercury Wrestling Club, has served as team leader for the World Clubs Cup team for the past three years. In those three years Titan Mercury has faced Iranian powerhouse Bimeh Razi in the finals all three times. “In Iran the competition is always fierce. Nobody gives an inch and because a wrestling match is so closely fought, like no other sport, one gets to know his opponent very well. Each year we become more friendly but the intensity of the wrestling match never lessons.” Titan Mercury Wrestling Club’s squad edged Bimeh Razi in Kharkov, Ukraine at the finals of the 2016 World Clubs Cup to be called the best wrestling club in the World. Yet many of his greatest wrestling memories come from traveling to Iran. “Impressionable moments for me are the exercise of just getting to this place called Iran. Once there the fan base and support of the sport of wrestling was incredible. 60 million Iranian people watched the USA/TMWC wrestling team in the finals against Iran and the arena was standing room only with so much noise one thought the roof might explode while all this sound blended into every second of every match perfectly. In the end we honored Iran and Iran honored the USA in a real harmony of love.”
Wrestling understands that the world is full of different ideals, perspectives and agendas. Never the less, through wrestling bonds are created that transcend all differences. “Wrestling promotes international diplomacy through competing at some of our nations political rivals home countries and interacting with the athletes while we are there.” Kyle Snyder’s experiences with Iran are common within the wrestling world; a perspective that most outside of wrestling will never have a chance to witness first hand “The Iranians I have met and interacted with in my athletic career have been some of the most kind and humble people I have ever been around. There is a language barrier between us most of the time, but they are extremely respectful and kind in their actions.”
Understanding barriers, and then breaking through them, has fostered a long standing and broader relationship for USA and Iran. Wrestling has given the world an understanding of how to be fierce competitors while cultivating great friendships “Wrestling diplomacy to me is building a brotherhood, expanding your family with common interest and mutual respect. Not only building a relationship but rather expanding your family and reaching your common goals. Like all relationship it starts with dialogue and respect. when the world gets heated, its having an open communication channel to discuss matters.” Mo Tavakolian’s commitment to US/ Iranian relations has been an integral part of this bond.
With Iran’s decision to allow the USA Wrestling team to compete at the World Cup, wrestling once again is offered a chance to show how sport can transcend political differences. “I think as individuals we are subject to the decisions of our government. Sure we elect our officials, but we don’t always agree with their decisions in regards to handling foreign affairs. Our government may have reason to believe that Iran is home to terrorists, but I believe it’s home to great wrestlers and fans that I’ve grown to love. I’ve never been a victim of terrorism, so it would be selfish of me to belittle it’s effect on our world today, and the methods associated with preventing it. However, it just so happens that the country being considered one of the most dangerous to American safety, is the place I love wrestling the most.” Jordan Burroughs says with hopes of wrestling once again in front of a boisterous crowd of Iranian wrestling fans.
Mo Tavakolian believes that wrestling can play a major role in US/ Iranian affairs in the future.
“Its key that politicians pay attention to these relationships and perhaps take a few pointers. An open dialogue can help drastically to down play any situation. Instead of aggressively responding, why not extend your hand and discuss the issues…You may not reach an agreement, but, at a minimum you have opened dialogue and seen the other side. Lack of communication creates more hostility and misunderstanding.”
The world is full of nations with different perspectives, agendas and points of view. No matter how polar our way of life, wrestling understands that turmoil and strive is left on the wrestling mat. Honor, respect, appreciation, and the desire to celebrate the common human condition is what has served as the bond in wrestling.