Iran is a mainstay in international wrestling. The United States has a long and proud wrestling history, too. In February, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) policy-making executive board moved to exclude wrestling from the 2020 Summer Games program. Sports officials in both countries would like to change that.
Thus, this week, USA Wrestling was promoting two meets, one which took place May 15 in New York, the other taking place on May 19 in Los Angeles. Both days: U.S. versus Iran. It’s an example, a press release notes, of “international goodwill through wrestling,” and follows an American wrestling trip in February to Tehran.
It is often said that sports and politics don’t mix.
In this case, the sports are all about politics. It’s sports politics. It’s geopolitics. It’s politics with ramifications yet uncertain.
It’s “outrageous,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said of the wrestling exhibitions, asking rhetorically, in a reference to the Berlin Games used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes, “Did we not learn anything since 1936?”
The challenge for USA Wrestling is that it has an elemental goal: to get back in the 2020 Summer Games. That is its narrow focus, and that is why the Iranians have been extended an invite.
“We think this an opportunity to use sport for good and maintain our position on the Olympic program,” said Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling.
The bigger-picture complexity is that Iran’s Olympic-sport athletes have for the last several years withdrawn, purposely lost or suddenly reported feeling ill so that they wouldn’t have to compete against Israelis.
The Olympic values purport to exemplify excellence, friendship and respect. Consider the record since 2004 in particular, and ask how USA Wrestling is — simply by giving the Iranians this platform and the media attention that goes with it — advancing those values.
Iran does not recognize Israel. It bans contact with the Jewish state.
New York and Los Angeles make up — outside Israel — the largest Jewish communities in the world.
At last summer’s London Olympics, Iranian officials declared for the record that their athletes would indeed compete against Israelis.
But the only Iranian athlete who could possibly have faced an Israeli opponent — judo champion Javad Mahjoob, competing in the 100-kilogram class — pulled out immediately before the Games, claiming a digestive infection.
At the 2011 world swimming championships, Iran’s Mohammad Alirezaei opted out of his qualifying heats in the 100-meter breaststroke. Israeli Gal Nevo was in the same race. Alirezaei told Associated Press he was “so tired and drowsy” from flying the day before the race.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Alirezaei pulled out of the 100 breaststroke, which included another Israeli, Tom Beeri. The IOC accepted the explanation that Alirezaei was ill.
That both withdrawals came against Israelis, Alirezaei said when asked about it in 2008 — that was simply a coincidence.
At the 2004 Games in Athens, Iran’s Arash Mirasmaeili showed up the morning of his match against Israeli Udi Wax. But Mirasmaeili — an experienced two-time world champion — inexplicably did not make weight, “disqualifying” himself.
In 2006, Iran withdrew from the World Judo Championships, to avoid a match with Israel. A year later, Iranian referee Ahmed Kaspandi declined to referee a match in which an Israeli player was participating.
At the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, Israel’s Gili Haimovitz won the 48 kg/106 pounds gold-medal match when Iran’s Mohammad Soleimani defaulted; he claimed to have aggravated a leg injury.
Moreover, at the medal ceremony, Soleimani did not show up. The Israeli flag went up; the anthem was played; the silver-medalist’s spot went vacant.
The Wiesenthal’s Rabbi Cooper is a longtime sports fan. He said, “I was pretty shocked wrestling was removed because it’s a dynamic sport. It brings people from around the world together. A lot of other things should have been cut first, and they should restore it.”
He also is a fan of the Games: “It is compelling. There are rules. There is no shtick. This is what sports are supposed to be.”
In London, Iran won six wrestling medals, fully half its total of 12. Three were gold, third-best, behind only Russia and Japan. In Iran, wrestling really matters.
For comparison: The United States won four wrestling medals, two gold, out of 104 total.
Wrestling is not just about force and power. It’s also about leverage. USA Wrestling had it but didn’t use it, Cooper said, asserting that the federation should have have “had the guts” to invite a third party — the Israelis.
If the conclusion had been that to invite the Israelis meant the Iranians wouldn’t come — well, Cooper said, “that rests the case.”
As it happens, the May 15 event in New York, at Grand Central Terminal, was indeed a doubleheader. There was the U.S. versus Iran. And the U.S. versus Russia — Russia is the world’s leading wrestling power. Russia won 82 medals overall in London, 11 in wrestling. At press time, results of the New York match were not yet available.
The Israelis were not invited.
The May 19 show in Los Angeles is set for the Sports Arena.
As further evidence that this tour is motivated by interests other than pure sport: International wrestling is hardly on the radar screen in Los Angeles, home of the Lakers, Clippers, Dodgers, Angels, Kings, Ducks, USC and UCLA.
Indeed, while USC and UCLA now field women’s varsity sand volleyball, and USC even has a women’s lacrosse team, there is no USC or UCLA varsity wrestling team, men’s or women’s. Olympic-style wrestling is simply just not part of the Southern California culture.
What is, though, and indisputably, is the Iranian influence. Estimates vary, but there is no question that there are hundreds of thousands of people who can claim ties to Iran in Los Angeles and Southern California, and the phrase “Tehrangeles,” especially for the area immediately south of UCLA, is a well-known part of L.A. life.
Iranian wrestlers have not competed in the United States since 2003, when the world championships were held in New York.
The Iranians are expected to bring two-time world champion Mehdi Taghavi Kermani at 66 kg/145.5 pounds, and two 2012 bronze medalists, Ehsan Lashgari at 84 kg/185 pounds, and Komeil Ghasemi at 120 kg/264.5 pounds.
The U.S. team in Los Angeles will be led by 163-pound gold medalist Jordan Burroughs and 132-pound bronze medalist Coleman Scott. Two other 2012 U.S. Olympians are on the U.S. roster: Tervel Dlagnev, the 2009 world silver medalist, at 120 pounds, and Sam Hazewinkel at 155 pounds.
The U.S. versus Russia meet was due to be held under some experimental rules designed to press wrestling’s case before the IOC. The U.S. versus Iran would feature the current international freestyle wrestling rules.
“It’s too bad the Iranian sports system corrupts and debases what sports stands for,” Cooper said, adding a moment later, “I am also disappointed the U.S. State Department did not put a caveat on this: The Iranian team would be welcome to come but not by debasing what America stands for.
“At best it’s a lost opportunity and at worst it’s sending a wrong signal. It’s sending the signal that will be received by the mullahs that was the same signal Hitler got: You can do all these terrible things, make a mockery of human rights and still get invited to the dance. That’s a shandah,” the Yiddish word for shame.
Cooper laughed a wry laugh and said, "That’s a famous wrestling term. And you can quote me on it."
Alan Abrahamson is an award-winning journalist specializing in Olympic sports. He is also the creator of the Web site 3 Wire Sports (3wiresports.com, where this column originally appeared).