Monday, May 27, 2013

UNITED NATIONS — Rarely, if ever these days, do you hear the United States making nice with Russia and Iran at the United Nations.

 



        So it was a slightly incongruous sight on Tuesday when some of the tougher, more muscular representatives of the three nations exchanged a stream of sugary compliments against the backdrop of their three flags.
By Wednesday afternoon, however, the representatives are expected to be back to the business at hand, trying to grapple each other to the ground. Literally.
A dream team of American wrestlers is scheduled to face the supreme wrestlers of Iran and then Russia in the main hall at Grand Central Terminal at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday — all part of a unified effort to save wrestling as an Olympic sport.
“We now have come face to face with our biggest challenge, one that will determine the future of our sport,” said Nenad Lalovic, the acting president of FILA, the sport’s governing body. “We love our sport, and we are united to save it.”
The executive board of the International Olympic Committee recommended in February That wresting be dropped as one of the 26 core sports in the 2020 Olympic Games (a host city has yet to be named). A final vote is scheduled in September, and the appearance of the three teams together at the United Nations and at Grand Central is part of the marketing effort to preserve it.
To save the sport, the Olympic committee has stipulated that the world’s wrestling associations enact some changes, like making the rules easier to understand and including more women in management. In general, the idea is to make wrestling more accessible and exciting to attract a larger audience. (Men — and some women — in tight singlets are apparently not enough.)
Hence the choice of Grand Central. “This is a great example of pushing the envelope on how to present our sport differently,” said Rich Bender, the executive director of U.S.A. Wrestling, the national governing body for amateur wrestling.
It is not the first such competition. The United States has sent teams to Iran almost a dozen times, and Iran has reciprocated. In February, Jordan Burroughs, 24, the American Olympic gold medalist, said he was mobbed in Tehran by screaming fans when he went for the World Cup. Even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showed up to shake his hand.
“They love me in Iran more than they love me here,” he said. “I don’t know if Obama has ever showed up to a wrestling event.”
The wrestlers, who profess to ignore politics, all share the sense that the stakes are high. Other sports want Olympic slots. Wrestling has to compete against golf and rugby, newly introduced for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, as well as baseball, softball, wakeboarding, rollerblading, squash, rock climbing, karate and wushu.
Wushu? “Something I ate last night,” deadpanned Mr. Bender. (It is actually a martial art.)
Participants are hoping that the sight of three usually implacable foes competing in such a public place will melt the hearts of committee members, proving that wrestling embodies international sports d├ętente at its best.
“Where I come from, wrestling is not just a sport, it is part of culture and history,” said Rasul Khadem, a gold medalist for Iran in 1996 and now a coach. “Saving wrestling in the Olympics is the wish and the desire of people who have lived with wrestling for hundreds of years.”