USA, USA, USA! The chant was loud and strong and it continued with a few blows of a loud horn thrown in, just in case anyone in the arena missed who they were cheering for. But this was not the US contingent willing on a victory with its screams. It was the Iranians cheering an American wrestler.
Why would the Iranians root for 84kg US wrestler Keith Gavin at the World Championships in Budapest, Hungary? Because his opponent was Michael Tsotselashvili of Israel. But this is certainly not the only example of Iran’s dislike of Israel spilling onto the wrestling mat.
The bland-looking, Soviet-style Arena Armeetz in Sofia, Bulgaria became the place to be for the best 18-20-year-old wrestlers from around the world as they competed in the Junior World Championships a month ago.
From Belarus to the US, the athletes waited for their minutes on the mat. Athletes from Israel and Iran waited as well.
I was one of the 200 or so parents who barely filled a quarter of the arena. What we lacked in numbers we made up for in noise, cheering our sons and daughters in victory, comforting them in defeat. But what happened on the final day of competition brought stunned silence.
They shouldn't let politics get in the way of wrestling. It's supposed to be which athlete is the best.
In the 84 kg weight class the Israeli wrestler battled and beat two opponents to make it to the semi-finals. Iran’s wrestler did the same. When it came time for them to face each other though the Iranian wrestler did not take the mat. The Israeli wrestler waited in the centre of the circle. The microphone blared several times imploring his opponent to join him. But everyone knew he would not show up. His country doesn’t recognise Israel.
The referee raised Ophir Bernstein’s hand as the winner of a match that never happened. He would compete for gold, thanks to the intolerance and interference that took the Iranian wrestler’s place. When sports and politics mix no one wins.
Bernstein faced the Russian wrestler in the title match and he surprised more than a few people by scoring the first points. He went home with the silver medal knowing that he wrestled his best in all but one match. After the tournament Bernstein told themat.com, “I would have loved to wrestle. They shouldn’t let politics get in the way of wrestling. It’s supposed to be which athlete is the best.”
If he’s anything like my son, who also competed in Sofia, the Iranian wrestler, Alireza Karimimachiani, worked hard and had to go through the best in his country just for the chance to compete here and deep down he was probably disappointed too. Both Bernstein and Karimimachiani are victims of a country that packs its political beliefs along with its team uniforms and a sport that allows it to happen.
As the parent of three sons who all wrestled I know they don’t consider a forfeit a win, it’s a chance to prove themselves, denied, it’s a slap, it’s a taunt. As a spectator in the arena in Bulgaria, I too felt gipped out of a match.
Of course it’s not the first time. Even in the Olympics Iran’s athletes have refused to compete against lsraeli athletes. Before the 2012 games in London the Los Angeles Times quoted the Iranian Sports Minister as telling the Islamic Republic News Agency, that “not competing with the Zionist athletes is one of the values and prides of the Iranian athletes and nation”.
The political drama in Bulgaria came at a time when wrestling was fighting for its Olympic life. As payback for years of arrogance and thumbing its nose at the IOC, wrestling was cut from the core sports of the games after 2016. It was reinstated as a provisional sport for 2020 and 2024 when the IOC met in Buenos Aires on September 8. FILA, wrestling’s governing body, made that happen in part by falling in line and following the Olympic committee’s directives to the letter.
But this is where wrestling should set an example and say no. Instead of allowing a country to pick and choose whom its athletes will and will not wrestle, FILA should demand that Iran compete with everyone or not compete at all.
My son Sam was on the US team in the same weight class. He said that before the competition the Iranian wrestler came up and shook his hand. He said to Sam, “The US and Iran, we are brothers in wrestling.” That sentiment should extend to all athletes, all countries and all sports and wrestling needs to step up and make it happen.
Caryn Brooks is an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School.