TEHRAN, Iran – When you see an American flag in Iran, it's usually on fire.
But that wasn't the case during the Takhti Cup, a two-day freestyle wrestling tournament hosted by Iran. The United States competed against nine other nations – including Iran – and the Stars and Stripes waved proudly throughout the event.
"We love being in Iran. It's the greatest wrestling country in the world. It's a wonderful place to come and compete," said Zeke Jones, head coach of the U.S. team. "The Iranian wrestlers are serious competition for us and the fans treat us like rock stars, so this is a great place."
Jones, who originally visited Iran in 1998 and was one of the first Americans to compete in the country after a nearly 20-year freeze, said he hopes athletic events like this one will lead to warmer relations between the two countries.
"As for the politics, I think that any time wrestling can be a tool to bring countries together, it's a wonderful thing," he said.
Three decades ago, the United States cut off diplomatic ties with Iran after the protracted embassy hostage crisis. But since then, the two countries have occasionally put aside their differences for the sake of athletic competition. For example, this is the seventh time a U.S. team has competed in the Takhti Cup since 1998. Also an Iranian basketball team played in the United States last year.
But these events don't always go according to plan. In February, at the eleventh hour, Iran decided not to issue visas for a U.S. women's badminton team who had been invited to compete in the country – a move the Obama administration at the time called "unfortunate."
The wrestling tournament kicked-off Thursday, with athletes from Cuba, Iraq, Turkey, Russia, among others, competing in Azadi (Freedom) stadium. Against the United States, Iran quickly gained the upper hand, winning two straight matches and drawing loud cheers.
"They were cheering for Iran a little bit out there, but I think that's what it's about, you know. They cheer for their guys and appreciate good wrestling," said American Mike Tamillow, who lost to Iran's Rasoul Tavakoli. "It's great to be here, but I wish I had won."
The Iranians were excited to get to watch the Americans wrestle in person. They painted their faces, banged on drums, honked horns, blew whistles and waved Iranian flags, all in the spirit of friendly sporting competition.
"I am so happy the Americans are here, they are a great team. The only reason I came today was to see them," said Ali Galvani, an amateur wrestler and student. "I hope one day I can travel to America and watch them compete there."
After we spoke, he asked if I could take him down to where the American athletes were sitting so he could see them up close. We introduced him to the team and he was star struck. Afterwards he thanked me profusely, telling me I had made his year.
Masoud Piran, a plumber, explained that what really mattered to him was the level of competition and that as long as the American's proved their athletic prowess, they'd win his respect.
It's not important what country they are from, it's important that they are good wrestlers. If the Americans wrestle well, then we will support them, too," said Piran.
|Hasan Sarbakhshian / AP
|Iranian gold medalist Rasoul Tavakkoli, left, and bronze medalist U.S. freestyle wrestler Michael Tamillow, pose during a medal ceremony at Iran's Takhti Wrestling Cup on Thursday.
'The Iranians are serious competition'
In Friday's matches, team U.S.A. didn't fare much better against its hosts – but that didn't seem to affect the mutual respect both sides felt. (Over the two-day tournament, the U.S. wrestlers lost six and won five of their matches. And against the Iranians, they had five defeats and three wins.)
Majid Roudbari, a wrestler in the 60 kilogram class, sang the praises of his American opponent, Shaun Bunch – albeit after he defeated him.
"The American wrestlers are very well prepared – if you make one small mistake they will beat you. You know, we like the Americans a lot. Iranian people and American people become friends very easily," said Roudbari. "As for our government's positions, well, I can't comment on that, but I would love to compete in America."
While the American wrestlers were excited to be in Iran, some of their family members were less than thrilled to see them go.
"Friends and family back home [asked] me, 'Why are you going to Iran? Are you crazy?' They told us they were worried about us and they were praying for us – but I have never felt so safe in my life," said Brandon Slay, one of the coaches on Team USA.
Slay hoped the event would play at least a small role in warming relations between old adversaries
"Americans don't hate Iranians and we know Iranians don't hate Americans. You can't make decision based on what a small sub-set of a population may think or feel. The majority of the people don't feel that way so don't stereotype them," Slay said. "If I can help my country bridge a gap with Iran well that's great."