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Iranians welcome US wrestlers after travel ban
02:29 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

The USA wrestling team was caught in the diplomatic tension between the US and Iran

The US, Iran and Russia are wrestling's international powerhouses

Kermanshah, Iran CNN  — 

The journey to this week’s freestyle wrestling World Cup in Iran was an exhausting one for the US team – and not only because of the long trip from the US to the Iranian city Kermanshah, with two stopovers in Frankfurt and Tehran.

It was the diplomatic hurdles that had stressed Team USA out. The wrestlers were caught in the most recent escalation between Tehran and the new Trump administration, and their visas did not come through until the last minute.

“It was difficult. There was a period of time where we were like, are we going, are we not going?” US Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs told CNN. “It was difficult being pawns in the game of political powers that were essentially deciding our fate.”

Iran initially denied visas for the American wrestlers in retaliation for the Trump administration’s travel ban against people from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran.

It wasn’t until US courts put the ban on hold, and officials from both the American and Iranian Wrestling Federations put in some lobbying, that the visas were finally granted.

“[The Iranian] Wrestling Federation lobbied on our behalf and I think their government as well looked at it as an opportunity to show their graciousness and their respect for the sport of wrestling,” Bill Zadick, head coach of the US’s freestyle wrestling team, told CNN during a training session ahead of Thursday and Friday’s competition.

The 2-day Freestyle World Cup is taking place in the city of Kermanshah in Iran's west.

Team USA missing the World Cup would likely have been a disaster for the sport. The US, Iran and Russia are wrestling’s international powerhouses.

“A World Cup without the Americans would not have been a real World Cup,” Rasoul Khadem, the head of Iran’s Wrestling Federation told CNN on the sidelines of the World Cup in Kermanshah, about 400 kilometers (248 miles) west of Tehran.

Unlike in politics, in wrestling there is a great deal of awe and respect between the US and Iran.

“I have been wrestling overseas for three years now and every Iranian I have ever come in contact with has been extremely respectful, extremely polite,” US Olympic gold medalist Kyle Snyder said during a training session.

US's Freestyle Wrestling team during a training session ahead of the competition on 16 and 17 February.

“[While] there’s a little bit of turmoil politically, you definitely don’t see that within the sport. We respect each other as competitors and as people,” Snyder told CNN.

Wrestling is one of Iran’s favorite sports and many of team USA’s wrestlers are celebrities here.

“In America we are misfits. In Iran we are heroes, so it is really cool to see,” Burroughs said.

US' Jordan Ernest Burroughs celebrates with national flag after defeating Iran's  Sadegh Saeed Goudarzi in their Men's 74kg Freestyle gold medal match on August 10, 2012 during the wrestling event of the London 2012 Olympic Games. 
 AFP PHOTO / YURI CORTEZ        (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/GettyImages)

Hero’s welcome

Team USA received a warm welcome when they arrived Wednesday in Kermanshah’s Shahid Ashrafi Esfahani Airport, where dozens of fans and reporters greeted the wrestlers.

Iran has been eager to show it is receiving the athletes with open arms despite the souring of relations since the Trump administration has assumed office. In just over three weeks, Washington has hit Iran with additional sanctions and put the country “on notice,” after Tehran tested a new medium-range ballistic missile – a move Washington says violates a UN resolution, which Iran denies.

Read More: Iranians no strangers to a US ban, but Trump era is different

President Trump himself has said Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani “needs to be careful” after Rouhani appeared to refer to Trump as a “political newcomer” in a recent speech marking Iran’s Revolution Day.

The Team USA wrestlers understood that they were right in the middle of this diplomatic standoff, but said they wouldn’t allow politics to taint their views of the athletes they are competing against.

They were focused on winning the World Cup. In the end, they came up just short, advancing to Friday’s final but losing the match 5-3 to the hosts. It was Iran’s sixth straight Freestyle World Cup title.

“We’ve come to win before any political stance, but we think it’s an opportunity to show how cool and how great of a relationship we have on such an intricate level,”Burroughs said before Friday’s final.

“[It’s about] seeing the people, being engaged with them and understanding their culture as much as we can before we make any big decisions about who they truly are.”