Komeil Ghasemi, left, of Iran fights with Tervel Ivaylov Dlagnev of the… (Orestis Panagiotou / European…)
Dozens of wrestling greats and their agitated fans gathered Thursday in Tehran to lament the elimination from the Olympics of the sport, which has a storied past in Iran.
Olympic officials decided Tuesday to cut wrestling from the 2020 Games, jettisoning a staple that had been part of the international competition for more than a century. Backers of the sport will have a chance in May to try to get it restored, but chances are seen as slight. The decision stunned athletes and fans around the world.
In Tehran, dropping wrestling was seen not just as a blow to the sport but as a slight to an Iranian favorite, treasured as part of its national heritage. Iranian legends are loaded with heroic wrestlers who grappled with their enemies and defeated them; Iran has racked up dozens of Olympic medals in wrestling, more than in any other sport.
Despite its popularity in Iran, “commercialized sports are more important in the global Olympic Games,” said Orang Mostaghim, an Iranian track and field coach. “Local traditions are losing ground -- and wrestling is a victim, whether we like it or not.”
Wrestling is seen as more than a sport, much like the Chinese martial art of kung fu or the American mythos around baseball. Iranian prowess in wrestling dates to an ancient Persian sport called Varzesh-e-Bastani, which emphasized personal ethics along with herculean strength. Portraits of Imam Ali, son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, hang in wrestling clubs.
“Do we destroy our historical sites which are symbols of humanity? No. Then, why should we destroy wrestling?” Iranian gold medalist Ali Reza Dabir told the Associated Press.
Crowds of Iranian wrestling fans vowed Thursday to keep the sport alive. At the newly built headquarters of the Iranian National Olympic Committee, statues of ancient Iranian theologians and philosophers stared down at the crowd as sportswriter Sadredrin Kazami called on fellow fans to send a petition to the United Nations and other international bodies in protest.
The petition should stress “the danger of the extinction of wrestling, which is a heritage of mankind,” Kazami said. “For 25 years there have been murmurs of omitting wrestling, and as time passes, the pressure to kick out wrestling is only increasing.”
Petitions to the International Olympic Committee are planned. Fears for their treasured sport are even pushing Iranians to reach across normally fraught political divides: The wrestling delegation of the Iranian National Olympic Committee will write to the United States, Russia, Turkey and other countries known for wrestling, asking them to help press for the sport to stay in the Olympics, its public relations manager Mahmoud Abdollahian said.
Iran, the U.S. and Russia could be the “axis” confronting the “allies” who want to cut wrestling from the Olympics, the independent newspaper Etemad wrote.
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Emily Alpert in Los Angeles contributed to this report. Full disclosure: Orang Mostaghim, quoted above, is the brother of author Ramin Mostaghim.