Dina Powell, assistant secretary for educational and cultural affairs at the State Department, told the team, "We are thrilled to have you represent the United States as athletes and citizen ambassadors." She noted that they are part of a broad effort by the Bush administration to reach out to Iran through people-to-people exchanges.
"We anticipate a range of further exchange with the people of Iran," Powell said, "particularly focused on sports, which share a common pride and team spirit."
Fourteen top-ranked amateur American wrestlers, accompanied by coaches, trainers and officials, will compete in seven weight categories at the 2007 Takhti Cup freestyle wrestling competition January 18-19 in Bandar Abbas in southern Iran. Several team members spoke at a State Department press conference January 13 prior to their departure for Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where they will be based for training and preparation.
A SPORTS TRADITION
Iran is not only one of the world's premier wrestling countries, according to U.S. officials, it might be the only nation where international freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling are even more popular than football (known as soccer in the United States).
Iran and the United States have a long and rich wrestling rivalry dating back more than 30 years, according to USA Wrestling. When American wrestlers took part in the 1998 Takhti Cup, they were the first American sports team to compete in Iran since the 1979 revolution. Since then, U.S. teams have competed regularly in the Takhti Cup as well as the 1998 World Championships in Tehran.
Outside of Iran, U.S. and Iranian wrestlers compete regularly in international and Olympic competitions, and USA Wrestling anticipates an Iranian team will travel to the United States sometime later in 2007.
At the September 2006 freestyle world championships
in Guangzhou, China, Iran placed second and the United States third -- behind
perennial powerhouse Russia.
The Takhti Cup is named for Iran's most renowned wrestler, Gholamreza Takhti (1930-1968), winner of two world championships, in 1959 and 1961, as well as an Olympic gold medal at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia. He also won Olympic silver medals in Helsinki, Finland, in 1952 and Rome in 1960.
WRESTLING WITH IRAN
"We have a great deal of respect for the Iranians," said U.S. coach Terry Brands, himself a 2000 and 2005 World Champion and 2000 Olympic bronze medalist. "Their position, technique, strength, physical conditioning is always outstanding. We want to use our own work ethic and go back for the opportunity to compete and to win."
Andy Hrovat, a college wrestling champion who placed fourth at the 2003 Takhti Cup, said, "Nothing comes close to the intensity of what I experienced in Iran. I'm going back because they have some of the greatest wrestling fans in the world. As Americans, you don't really have the chance to experience that. ... The people love wrestling and the competition, and it's amazing the way they cheered for us, even when we were winning."
Hrovat, who wrestles at 84 kilos, recalled that when he left Tehran, a woman at the airport gave him a heart-shaped arrangement of pistachios as a gift because she had seen and admired his matches on television.
Ramico Blackmon, a 2001 U.S. national champion, recalled a match at the 2004 Takhti Cup in which the fans actually rooted for an American in his match with an Iranian wrestler.
"They are the most knowledgeable fans in the world," Blackmon said. "They'll cheer for you if you win, and if you lose, they cheer if you show a lot of skill and ability."
The team members recognize that they will serve as representatives of America to many Iranians, but they insist their focus is on the competition with one of their longtime rivals.
"Our focus is to be world champions," Bender said. "We have to wrestle the best. The Iranians are among that group."
Brands pointed to differences in technique and style. "Ours is to use our conditioning and be aggressive," he said. Iranian wrestlers, he observed, tend to stay back and look for counter moves and mistakes that they can exploit. Each national team has had success with its own approach, according to Brands, and the clash of styles can make for great competition.
"We're going there to compete and win ... that's our focus," said Brands, who also observed that the matches will be excellent preparation for both countries as they get ready for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
The United States long has recognized the powerful role sports can play as a shared cultural passion that brings together people and nations around the world, especially in reaching out to young people.
Karen Hughes, the State Department's under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, recently said: "Sports are a common language that can bring people together despite differences of region, race or religion. Sports teach leadership, teamwork, respect for rules and respect for one another. To succeed in sports requires practice, discipline and determination, important skills that help young people succeed in all areas of their lives." (See related article.)
Jared Frayer, 28, who wrestles in the 66 kilo class, said his family initially was apprehensive about his traveling to Iran until he explained that, as a wrestler, he could not pass up such an important opportunity.
"My mom was praying a lot, but I think the family is happy for me now," Frayer said. "I told them, it's Iran! That's the place I always wanted to go."
For more information about freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling in the United States, see the USA Wrestling Web site.
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
... Payvand News - 1/17/07 ... --