Sports

Wrestlers tune out politics for international championship at Forum

The Russian coach did not want to talk about troops on the Crimean peninsula or any other aspect of his country’s conflict with Ukraine.

Speaking through an interpreter, Christakis Alexandridis preferred to focus on his wrestlers and their chances in an international championship at the Forum this weekend.

“Our politics is wrestling,” he said.

But current events cannot help but intrude on the 42nd FILA Freestyle World Cup, not with a Saturday schedule featuring two politically charged matches.

Russia will face Ukraine, followed by the U.S. against Iran.

“People tell us, ‘Make sure you beat Iran,’ “ American wrestler Tervel Dlagnev said. “As an athlete, you become a little selfish. You naturally tune out all that stuff.”

The World Cup annually brings together the top 10 teams in the international rankings and pits them against each other in a dual-meet format.

Squads compete two at a time, in eight weight classes, with the winner taking a step closer to the title.

The matches will feature some of wrestling’s biggest names, including Jordan Burroughs of the U.S., Khadzhimurat Gatsalov of Russia and top-ranked Hassan Rahimi and Reza Yazdani from Iran.

“We really enjoy coming to the United States due to a lot of Iranian community living” here, Iranian official Alireza Rezaie said, adding: “We feel like we’re home.”

That wasn’t the case last May when the team competed in New York City but then failed to show for a subsequent match at the Sports Arena.

Iranian media reported team officials had security concerns and the U.S. refused to guarantee their safety. Talking to reporters this week, Rezaie remained vague.

“They decided to go back to Iran for some conditions,” he said. “There was not any specific reason.”

Last year’s event was merely a “friendly.” This time, Iran has more incentive to take part in a competition that ranks just below the Olympics and world championships in prestige.

Other qualifiers include Armenia, Japan, India and Turkey.

The World Cup originated in Toledo, Ohio, in the early 1970s and was held there for many years, but shifted abroad in 2004. Its return to the U.S. began with a casual conversation aboard a tour boat on the Danube.

Shortly after the 2013 world championships in Budapest, Hungary, U.S. Coach Zeke Jones and Los Angeles wrestling official Andy Barth talked about staging the event in Southern California.

USA Wrestling liked the idea and FILA, the sport’s international federation, quickly signed on.

Though California might not seem like a wrestling mecca, there were reasons for bringing the World Cup here. No other state has as many youth wrestlers, Jones said. And Los Angeles’ ethnic diversity could boost ticket sales.

“Every one of these [teams] has a community of people representing them here,” Barth said. “That means we’re going to have a very excited crowd.”

The Americans are hoping to parlay a home-mat advantage into their first World Cup victory since 2003. The Iranians want to defend the championship they won last year in Tehran.

So the talk at a news conference this week centered on sport, not current affairs.

The wrestlers and coaches insisted they are somewhat immune to political tensions because they have spent the last year united in a common cause.

The International Olympic Committee put their sport on a list of events to be cut from the official program. Only intense lobbying saved it.

“We all circled around the same goal,” Dlagnev said. “As far as competitors, we have a lot of respect for each other.”

Burroughs recalled fans greeted him warmly in Tehran last year. Organizers later snapped a photo of Alexandridis arm-in-arm with his Ukrainian counterpart.

The Russian coach said: “We live in a world where we cannot do about politics, nothing.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesWharton

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