On the eve of an international wrestling meet at the Sports Arena, American officials remain at a loss to explain why the Iranian team — making its first visit to the U.S. since 2003 — has unexpectedly withdrawn and flown home.
Los Angeles was supposed to be the second stop in a two-city tour. The Iranians competed in New York earlier this week.
Iranian media reported Friday that team officials had security concerns and that U.S. officials refused to guarantee their safety on the West Coast.
“That’s a total fabrication,” said Craig Sesker, a spokesman for USA Wrestling. “The only thing I know is that they made a schedule change and decided to return to Iran.”
Government officials in Tehran could not be reached for comment.
As American wrestlers arrived in Los Angeles on Friday afternoon, organizers scrambled to arrange for Russian and Canadian athletes to fill out the field at Sunday’s “United 4 Wrestling” event.
“It’s kind of disheartening to hear they went home,” Jordan Burroughs, a U.S. gold medalist in the 2012 London Olympics, said of the Iranians. “We had absolutely no idea.”
Despite tense relations between the governments, American and Iranian wrestlers have enjoyed a bond because of their success and long history with wrestling.
During a World Cup event in Tehran last February, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shook hands and took photos with American competitors.
Wrestling officials from the both countries had joined with the Russians to form an unofficial coalition in hopes of keeping their sport in the Olympics.
Earlier this year, the executive board of the International Olympic Committee recommended that wrestling be dropped in the 2020 Games. The IOC is scheduled to vote on the recommendation in September.
Iran’s visit was seen as a kind of promotional campaign. The Russians came too, and the three teams competed at Grand Central Terminal on Wednesday.
“It was great,” U.S. Coach Zeke Jones said. “The competition was good and people were rocking and rolling in the arena, including the Iranians — they were going crazy.”
Iranian athletes won six of their seven matches and displayed the sportsmanship for which they are known.
“They don’t ever wrestle dirty,” Burroughs said. “Regardless if they win or lose, they shake hands with the opposing coaches and with their opponents.”
Bill Scherr, a former Olympic official now with the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling, said the Iranian athletes appeared to enjoy their time in New York City, which included a shopping trip, and seemed eager to visit Los Angeles, which has a large Iranian community.
When Iranian officials first hinted at leaving on Thursday, USA Wrestling and State Department officials tried to dissuade them, Scherr said.
“There were plenty of conversations that took place,” he said.
The Iranians have a history of withdrawing from international competitions at the last moment. In particular, they have backed out of numerous events that included Israeli athletes.
No Israelis or Jewish wrestlers were scheduled to compete in Los Angeles on Sunday.
U.S. officials said they have heard various rumors about Iran’s abrupt departure but declined to elaborate. New York was the premier stop on the tour, with the meet broadcast on cable television.
“The event in Los Angeles was secondary,” Scherr said. “Maybe they accomplished what they came to do.”
Sunday’s lineup will feature Burroughs and Coleman Scott, a bronze medalist in London. The Russian contingent will include several highly ranked wrestlers, including Opan Sat, a three-time European champion.
Dan Gable, Bruce Baumgartner and other former stars in the sport are expected to attend.
“We’ll still have a great competition,” Burroughs said, adding: “I know if the Iranian wrestlers could have stayed here, they would have.”
Ramin Mostaghim contributed to this story from Tehran.