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Sportsmanship Finds an Opening in a Wall of Mistrust

John Marks is president of Search for Common Ground in Washington and the European Centre for Common Ground in Brussels, organizations that work worldwide to prevent and resolve deep-seated conflict

The American flag returned to Iran last week with honor, without chauvinism and in an atmosphere of mutual respect. This historic event occurred because of the presence in Tehran of a U.S. wrestling team, apparently the first time that Americans openly, if unofficially, had represented their country in Iran since the hostage crisis.

I have never before attended a defining sporting event, such as a World Cup final or a World Series won by a ninth-inning home run. For me, the final of the Takhti Cup wrestling tournament in Tehran on Feb. 20 was such an event.

It is important to understand that wrestling occupies a special place in Iranian culture. “It is the pride of our people, an expression of Iranian character,” explained Mohammad Reza Teleqani, head of the Iranian Wrestling Federation. It is arguably the country’s most popular sport, and the fans tend to be working-class.

There were 13,000 spectators packed into the 12,000-seat Azadi arena. The crowd clearly came out to see the Americans. Whenever a U.S. wrestler competed, the place became electric. The crowd was torn between wanting Iranians to win and wanting to show approval of the American guests. So the fans cheered for both. They roared when Zeke Jones won a silver medal and waved the Iranian flag. There was a moment of disappointment when Kevin Jackson defeated an Iranian opponent, but that was followed by a huge ovation when the two wrestlers shared a long embrace. And the fans loved it when Jackson took a victory lap around the arena, high-fiving spectators as he ran.

In the last match, Melvin Douglas faced Abbas Jadidi, who narrowly missed a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics because of a referee’s controversial decision. The crowd kept shouting “Ja-di-di, Ja-di-di.” He was obviously the hometown favorite. He and Douglas faced off in an epic struggle. Neither could gain a real edge, and at the end of regulation time, they were tied 3-3. With only a minute left in overtime, Jadidi managed to get behind Douglas and pick up his legs. Douglas struggled to escape. For 20 agonizing seconds, he showed almost superhuman resolve in not being flipped. And then Jadidi turned over the American and won the match.

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Exhausted, the wrestlers collapsed on the mat and then quickly rose to hug each other. The crowd screamed the familiar refrain, “Ja-di-di, Ja-di-di.” But they alternated it with “Doug-las, Doug-las.”

Jadidi carried a large portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini as he walked to the podium to accept his medal. Douglas followed him, holding a picture of Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. The fans roared their approval. While at the beginning of the match, this same crowd had loudly demonstrated disapproval for Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, the defeated, hard-line presidential candidate who sat in the box of honor, now they appreciated Douglas’ gesture of respect toward the Islamic Republic. (I later asked Douglas how he came to carry Khamenei’s picture. He said that Jadidi asked him to and he did not want to refuse.)

Zeke Jones, Kevin Jackson and Melvin Douglas were part of a remarkable group of wrestlers and officials from the American national wrestling federation. They had been invited by their Iranian counterparts. The Iranian government approved entry visas. The State Department stated it had “no objection,” which meant tacit approval while maintaining official separation. My organization, Search for Common Ground, became involved last October at the recommendation of Bruce Laingen, the senior official held hostage in 1979 by radical Iranian students.

By their actions and their words, the Iranian and American wrestlers demonstrated an alternative model for how their two countries could interact. They competed fiercely, but did so within mutually accepted rules. They recognized they had differences, but they allowed their common humanity to triumph.


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