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On the wrestling mat, U.S. and Iran are good sports

  • Story Highlights
  • Longtime adversaries Iran and the United States are friendly enemies on the mat
  • U.S. freestyle men's wrestling team will participate in Iran tournament
  • Sport of wrestling is hugely popular in the Islamic republic
  • U.S. official says of Iran: "They treat our athletes like kings"
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From Shirzad Bozorgmehr and Joe Sterling
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(CNN) -- When it comes to the sport of wrestling, longtime adversaries Iran and the United States are friendly enemies.

Andy Hrovat, right, seen wrestling Reineris Salas of Cuba, is among the U.S. wrestlers touring this winter.

Andy Hrovat, right, seen wrestling Reineris Salas of Cuba, is among the U.S. wrestlers touring this winter.

A U.S. freestyle men's wrestling team will go to the Islamic republic -- where the sport is widely popular -- for a prestigious tournament in March.

Nine American wrestlers will take part in the Takhti Cup competition, scheduled for March 12-13, according to state Iranian media and USA Wrestling -- the national governing body for Olympics wrestling in the United States.

"In Iran, wrestling and soccer are the two major sports," said Gary Abbott, director of communications for USA Wrestling in Colorado Springs, Colorado. "They know their wrestling as well as anyone in the world. They treat our athletes like kings."

Relations between the United States and Iran ended after Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held Americans hostage there for 444 days.

More recently, the two countries have been at odds over Iran's nuclear ambitions and have been sharply critical of each other's policies and actions in the Middle East.

But Abbott said there has been a history of U.S. and Iranian wrestling exchanges despite the politics. Both sides are always looking for opportunities to compete.

Abbott said Iran is one of the top wrestling powers in the world, along with countries such as the United States, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. Competing in a wrestling-crazy society like Iran is special to Americans, who look forward to getting on the mats before large crowds in sold-out arenas.

"For the common citizen, an American wrestler in Iran is like Michael Jordan going over there," Abbott said, referring to the world-famous American basketball legend.

USA Wrestling said the trip is one of several overseas events this winter for American wrestlers.

U.S. teams also will also be competing in Russia, Ukraine, Sweden, Cuba, Bulgaria, Belarus, Turkey, Serbia, Hungary and Slovenia. The team going to Iran includes four men who have represented the United States in the Olympics.

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