Can wrestling bridge the cultural gap between Iran and the United States?
By Dan Yonker
The Iranian nuclear deal reached on November 24th 2013 has been hailed as a breakthrough in relations between Iran and the West, especially with the United States. U.S. President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani have made a public effort to improve these relationships, ranging from the return of a stolen artifact to phone calls and of course the meetings in Geneva.
Yet, despite the goodwill these leaders have displayed in recent months, there is still a large gap between their optimism and how their citizens feel. A recent poll reveals that 41% of Americans favor the deal, while 43% oppose it. Gallup polls also show that 45% of Americans still regard Iran as an enemy. In Tehran, Iranians celebrated the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy, debuting two new “Death to America” songs in the process.
Diplomatic advances are vital for any type of lasting deal, but that is only one part of the equation. The cultural gap must be addressed as well before rapprochement can truly take place. This requires an approach that appeals to the average American or Iranian, not the high level diplomat. Luckily such an option exists.
There is very little that Tehran and Washington see eye to eye on, but one thing that people in both countries can agree on is their passion for wrestling. After the International Olympic Committee decided to drop wrestling following the 2016 Summer Games, athletes, coaches, and fans from both Iran and the United States were united by their cause to preserve Olympic wrestling. It is this unique relationship that can be harnessed to bridge the cultural differences separating these two bitter adversaries.
Wrestling provides an opportunity to encourage dialogue because of its ability to transcend political, ideological, and religious differences. Both Americans and Iranians share a zeal for wrestling unmatched in many countries. Many people would have a hard time envisioning former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad celebrating the achievements of American athletes. Yet following Iran’s victory at the 2013 Freestyle Wrestling World Cup in Tehran, he was center stage posing for photographs and shaking hands with members of the U.S. team. Iranian spectators held signs in both Farsi and English with the simple message that, “We are all wrestling fans.” Instead of pitting fans against each other, they were unified in their celebration of athletic accomplishments. This allows discussion to develop at a grassroots level devoid of political rhetoric, while encouraging both nations to work together towards a common goal.
This goal can also translate to more tangible applications as well. If Iran and the United States are serious about saving Olympic wrestling, then they must launch an organized and coordinated campaign. This requires a close cooperation between the two, which in turn leads to an increase in constructive interactions. These lead to the creation of trusted networks between various American and Iranian representatives. The new channels can be utilized not only for the sake of wrestling, but can also facilitate more overt diplomatic discussion, without having to fly to Switzerland.
In order for this campaign to be successful, Iranian and American athletes, coaches, and sporting officials must present a publicly unified front. These positive images would go a long way in presenting a narrative that the public would find easy to embrace. “The political differences our countries share are obvious and well-documented,” states Rich Bender, the executive director of USA Wrestling, but “from a wrestling standpoint, though, the U.S. and Iran have one of the strongest relationships of anyone in the sport.” As a result of this, he is keenly aware of the possible role that wrestling could play. “This is a chance to show how wrestling unites nations. It’s classic diplomacy.”
It is this kind of diplomacy that fans in both countries can embrace. It is accessible to them; it doesn’t involve diplomats meeting in faraway places or complex political documents. Their heroes, both Iranian and American, are setting an example they can relate to by working together. It is a message that both countries have already started to embrace. When the U.S. team arrived at Azadi Sports Complex in Tehran for the World Cup, they were greeted with cheers from the raucous home crowd. 2012 Olympic Gold Medalist Jordan Burroughs received a welcome that would put Michael Jordan to shame, his name echoing across the stadium. As Academic All-American wrestler Rex Kendle explains, “When it comes to wrestling, we seem to be able to put our differences aside.”
Putting these differences aside has actually led to some progress. The U.S. wrestling trip to Tehran in February was a great success for both teams. After winning his match, Jordan Burroughs seemed full of optimism when he extolled the virtues of both countries, while hoping that this special relationship could become an agent for change. A few months later, the Iranian team traveled to the United States to take part in the “Rumble on the Rails” event on May 15, in New York City. This marked the first American trip in 10 years for the Iranian team. These events may not of had the fanfare that the recent nuclear deal did, and rightly so, but they were still positive cultural exchanges that deserved to be celebrated.
Considering the difficulties Iran and the United States have faced in opening meaningful dialogue, it is easy to dismiss the idea that wrestling could provide such a bridge when so many other approaches have failed. However the power of using sports as an effective diplomatic tool should not be underestimated. Take for example the success of Ping-Pong Diplomacy during the 1970s. Relations between the United States and China were greatly improved as a result of this pragmatic and forward thinking approach. There is no reason why wrestling cannot be used in the same way. After all, sports seem to bring out the best in people, while politics often bring out the worst. Here’s to hoping President Obama and President Rouhani are both wrestling fans.
Dan Yonker is a Staff Writer at The Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs.
Photo credit: Chris Marchant, Flickr Commons