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|Thoughts and Notes from USA Wrestling’s trip to Iran|
By Van Stokes USA Wrestling
The opportunity for USA Wrestling to compete in Iran gave lasting memories to wrestlers and fans from both countries. Whenever people come together for international competition, they learn about each other and the countries they represent. So it was in this experience, as USA Wrestling accepted the invitation to compete in the Takhti Cup Freestyle Wrestling Tournament in Bandar Abbas. In so doing, wrestlers helped open the door of understanding and friendship through sports. There were many enduring impressions.
The warm and friendly tone of our visit was set quickly upon our arrival at the airport in Bandar Abbas. After presenting our passports, we were quickly escorted into the terminal area where we were greeted by a host of officials to include wrestling leaders, the Mayor, and the press. We were given a bouquet of flowers and each wrestler was handed a single rose by young children dressed in traditional and colorful attire. The media covered the arrival, greetings were exchanged, and the tone of great hospitality was set at a level that never diminished during the entire visit.
Our hosts in the hotel, at the venue, and with security, were always asking, "Is everything okay?" We were treated as welcome guests and they aimed to accommodate our needs to the maximum extent possible. When we handed them a commemorative pin as a gift, they were grateful and opened up easily.
Friendly accommodations were made on the first day in country when we requested to change our practice time on the mats. While this necessitated changing the practice time for the Iranian team, it was done immediately without any problems. When we asked for bottled water, it appeared. Every request was honored, and every need was met in a gracious manner.
Throughout our visit, we met countless people who demonstrated a genuine interest in meeting us and having their pictures made with our team. People seemed to be curious about us, just as we were about them. They seemed to see us as Americans, which raised their level of curiosity. However, they also seemed to see us as human beings, just like themselves. As we stood together smiles seemed to come easily to all of our faces.
The more time we spent around the people, the common bonds of our humanity seemed to resonate. Whether it was parents with kids, older adults in the market place, shopkeepers, or wrestlers in the arena, the theme of people coming together spoke volumes about what it means to be human. As sports ambassadors, we could see ourselves meeting Iranians on a bridge of understanding that would have been impossible without making the effort to visit.
When talking about the people with our liaison, he told me, "They get more satisfaction from a motorcycle than some people get from a Mercedes. The motorcycle is what takes their family to picnics and visits to nature." He was succinct when he said, "They do not have all of the latest in technology, but they have the important things." It was evident in their faces.
Long considered to be the most knowledgeable and appreciative wrestling fans in the world, they lived up to their reputation. They could best be described as raucous, frenzied, loud, pulsating, rhythmic, and great. The venue held approximately 3,000 fans who were mostly seated together on one side of the arena. They were all males, and the only females in the facility worked in the tournament public relations and administrative section. They stayed in the administration room and did not venture onto the floor or main spectator areas.
Enduring images of the fans include the many young Iranians whose faces were painted in red, green, and white. They were loud and proud, and were led by self appointed cheer leaders. Their cheers were long and were fueled by a loud drum, a horn, a kazoo, and several Iranian flags in their midst. They were appreciative of good performances by the wrestlers, regardless of the nationality. They were quick to show their appreciation.
For one session, the facility was filled with fans an hour before competition. When the USA team entered the arena to prepare for the session, the fans gave the team a standing ovation. The cheering began when we arrived in the facility, and did not subside until the last match. They seemed to feed upon themselves, and were always recognizing outstanding performances on the mat with more noise and louder applause.
Prior to the beginning of that session wrestler Mo Lawal, who earned the only gold medal for the USA, walked around floor by the edge of the bleachers shaking hands and handing out pins to the cheering mass of fans. He was like a gladiator walking around the coliseum to the cheering sound of spectators. When he took a young child in his arms, the photographers captured the moment in unison. It was a genuine moment of goodwill and an enduring image of the trip.
During the evening of the first day of competition, we were told that 5,000 fans were outside of the facility hoping to get inside, but it was already full. At one point, it appeared that they were trying to push a door open and force their way into the facility. Officials were clearly challenged to close the door and lock it. The pushing and shoving was seen by everyone, and the next day, there appeared to be more military personnel and police in the area near the entrance.
Along with our hospitality, our hosts seemed to be concerned with our safety and security at all times. The USA team was never isolated from the people, but it was usually insulated by security personnel who had communication devices that enabled them to stay in constant communication with each other.
The lead security person stayed on our floor in the hotel and was selected for this position because of his ability to speak English. He was also born in New Jersey, but has been living in Tehran with his family many years.
Security personnel moved with us every time we left the hotel. They controlled the access to us by fans inside of the arena. Outside of the arena, they moved quickly when they were unsure of the situation. They acted in a professional manner and took their responsibilities with great seriousness.
The security personnel were friendly and attempted to be low-key, although their presence was quickly recognized. They seemed to always have us in their line of vision and were observant of our movements. When the competition sessions ended, they asked us to wait a few minutes until the spectators could first leave the arena.
When we traveled to go shopping on our last day, we were escorted by a number of personnel who managed to stay up with us in the old bazaar. We were free to talk with folks, but they were standing by to move in case of an incident.
Organization of the Competition
The competition was identified on one program as "27th Takhti International Senior Freestyle Wrestling Tournament, Memorial for the Martyrs of the Forever Persian Gulf." We have historically called it "The Takhti Cup," named for a legendary Iranian wrestler.
The competition was excellent in every aspect. The wrestlers were among the best in the world and the competition was administered in a very proficient manner. Athletes, coaches, and administrators were issued credentials that enabled them to move about the arena in designated areas.
There were 93 wrestlers from Iran in the tournament, 13 from the USA and seven from Turkmenistan. No other countries were entered. The USA earned one gold, one silver, and two bronze medals. Details of the competition were filed daily and were posted on the web site for USA Wrestling, www.themat.com
There were 40 referees from Iran and one from the USA. The venue was prepared with three mats, and clearly designated areas for general spectators, athletes, tournament officials, VIP's, announcers, and administrative personnel. This is clearly a country that understands the intricacies and details of hosting a world class wrestling event.
The competition included an announcer who spoke excellent English. Each session was opened by prayer over the public address and music was played to enhance the production. Opening ceremonies included musicians and performers.
All athletes and tournament officials were lodged at the Hormoz Hotel in Bandar Abbas, www.hormoz-hotel.com The four-star hotel was the best in the city and was located only a five minute walk from the competition venue and next door to the training facility. It was a spacious hotel that was comfortable and clean. While it was not like American hotels, it could accommodate families or business people with ease. It was an excellent location for lodging.
All athletes, referees, media, and tournament officials ate meals together in a large dining area unavailable to the public. Food was served buffet style and the atmosphere was conducive to people eating together and being able to talk in a non-wrestling environment. While the food did not vary much, it was well prepared and nourishing. The hotel served as the central point of people coming together, and the main floor lobby often found wrestling people sitting and talking.
Over 150 media personnel received credentials to cover the event. Articles were published daily, and photographers seemed to capture everything that took place in the arena.
The wrestling press in Iran could be compared to the media frenzy in America that hovers around major sporting events. Photographers lined up several deep behind barriers by the mats that featured major matches, especially between Iran and the USA. The presence of the press was large.
All requests for interviews were honored, to include tape recorders, video recorders, and TV cameras. The questions were almost standard. "What do you think of the Iranian wrestlers? What is your impression of the organization of the tournament, and what was your motivation for coming here?"
All members of the USA team who were interviewed were able to provide cogent and clear answers in a sincere and meaningful way. The translation and transliteration were left to the imagination. From most perspectives, the communication was positive and favorable to our presence.
Following the conclusion of the competition on the final day, a press conference was held with over 40 present. Questions were asked about the organization of USA Wrestling and how the business of our organization was conducted. They seemed genuinely interested in our form of administration and governance of this sport in the USA. While some questions dealt with the competition, most of the questions pertained to how we are structured as a National Governing Body and how we finance our programs.
Wrestling with Iran is a natural outgrowth of the Olympic Spirit. Iran and the United States are two of the strongest wrestling powers in the world. Naturally, one would expect these two teams to come together and compete in man's oldest sport whenever possible. In order to get better, the best have to wrestle the best, wherever that may be.
There is the element of competition that can often reveal much about us as people. There is the element of cultural differences surrounding common fields of play, where our similarities and commonalities of being human are transparent and congruent to all spectators. And there is the element of two cultures standing together recognizing the accomplishments of each individual wrestler.
Our athletes are sports ambassadors who relate to their fellow competitors much like musicians can relate to other musicians. Win or lose, they are in the unique position of carrying the values and principles of this country to the far reaches of the world.
As with other sports, wrestlers are in a position to represent the best of what it means to be American.
Editor's Note: Van Stokes served as Team Leader for the U.S. freestyle team that competed in the 2007 Takhti Cup in Bandar Abbas, Iran. Stokes currently serves as Second Vice President of USA Wrestling.
Photo courtesy of Ali Feizasa