Could wrestling be the key to American-Iranian detente?
TEHRAN, Iran (AP)
The caretakers of the Olympics may have inadvertently accomplished what has eluded diplomats: Galvanizing Iran and the U.S. on a common goal.
Wrestling officials from the arch foes appeared to be in bonding mode Tuesday on the sidelines of a Tehran tournament less than a week after the stunning decision by the International Olympic Committee that will force the ancient sport - as old as the Olympics themselves - to lobby for a spot at the 2020 Games.
Already, the fight to keep wrestling in the Olympics has brought the U.S. and Cuban federations into a possible alliance. But close cooperation between Iran and America would be an even more remarkable display of common cause with almost everything else driving them apart - led by an impasse over Tehran's nuclear program and Western sanctions that have upended the Iranian economy.
It's unlikely that any kind of wrestling detente would spill over into the wider issues, but it's certain to at least draw attention to the power of sports as a low-risk icebreaker going back to the historic 1971 "pingpong diplomacy" between China and the U.S.
U.S. freestyle coach Zeke Jones, speaking to The Associated Press by phone from Tehran, said that officials from 10 of the world's top wrestling nations will meet Wednesday in Iran. Delegations from Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Georgia, Iran, Japan, Kazakhstan, the United States, Russia and Turkey will gather to discuss how to reverse the IOC's decision.
Jones said that those countries were chosen because they finished in the top 10 in the freestyle competition at the 2011 world championships, the last time team scores were held at a major international meet.
"We'll be standing arm-in-arm with Iran, and we'll be standing with Russia as we will with lots of other countries," said Mitch Hull, national teams director for USA Wrestling, in an interview in Tehran with AP Television News before the World Cup Tournament.
"Those (countries) really do make a difference because politically we're not always on the same page, or politically with Russia, but in wrestling, there's no doubt that we are all together in this effort and we consider Iran one of our strongest allies in the sport of wrestling," Hull said.
Hull described them as "sport rivals, but they are friends in sport, too."
"We have great confidence that we can work with the Iranian wrestling federation, Iranian wrestlers and the Iranian people to show the world that, no matter what's happening politically, we have the same goal and the same belief and passion about the sport of wrestling," he said.