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U.S., Russia and Iran work to save Olympic wrestling

    Wrestlers in the 74 kilogram weight class Hassan Tahmasebi, left, of Iran, shakes hands with USA wrestler Kyle Dake, of Ithaca, N.Y., during a news conference at U.N. headquarters, Tuesday, May 14, 2013, announcing the "Rumble on the Rails" wrestling exhibition between the teams from Iran, Russia and the United States. The exhibition, to be held at New York's Grand Central Terminal on Wednesday, is designed to highlight the sport's international appeal and popularity. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

UNITED NATIONS >> In Iran, Olympic wrestling champion Jordan Burroughs felt like Justin Bieber, LeBron James and Tom Brady all rolled into one.

Not so much in his home country, though the New Jersey native was greeted by more than a dozen television cameras Tuesday when the American team arrived at the United Nations for a news conference with the Iranian and Russian squads.

Wrestling’s leaders hope sports fans do a double-take when they see those three countries in the same sentence — to prove a point about the sport’s universality. The International Olympic Committee has recommended that wrestling be dropped starting with the 2020 Games, a decision that has a lot of people talking about the sport.

“It was like a double-edged sword. It’s bittersweet,” Burroughs said. “We’re fighting for our lives, but in retrospect, we’re getting more attention than we’ve ever received. Walking in here and seeing all these cameras, you’re like, ‘What the heck’s going on?’ It’s not a lot of times we get this much press.”

The United States will face fellow wrestling powers Iran and then Russia in exhibitions Wednesday at Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal. It’s not the first time a wrestling meet has sprung up at a famed New York City locale — this is the fourth straight year such an event has been held to raise money for wrestling nonprofit Beat the Streets, with the last two in Times Square.

And it’s not the first time the Iranians have competed in the U.S., though they hadn’t been back since the world championships in this same city a decade ago. But February’s unexpected IOC decision changed everything, and the organizers’ goal is for “The Rumble on the Rails” to be much more than just another charitable event or international exhibition.

They hope the IOC is watching and notices the symbolism.

“I think they are. They have to. Three superpowers in the world are telling them to put it back in,” said Kyle Dake, who will be competing in his first major senior-level international event after becoming the first wrestler to win NCAA titles in four weight classes.

Wrestling is now one of eight sports seeking to fill one spot in the 2020 Olympics. The IOC board will meet May 29 in Russia to recommend a short list, with the final decision in September.

Wednesday’s meet is one of many events around the world this month to promote the sport. The Iranians will also wrestle the Americans in Los Angeles on Sunday.

All these efforts to publicize the sport are among the lessons of the IOC’s decision. Wrestling leaders are rethinking everything from their governance structure to their rules.

There’s a sense the sport will emerge stronger from these tribulations — if it emerges as an ongoing part of the Olympics.

“It’s a weird feeling,” said U.S. freestyle coach Zeke Jones. “Wrestling’s not going away. It’s what humans do; it’s innate in mankind. But you have this feeling of, ‘Man, we’re getting better right now when we might not be in the Olympic Games.'”

Staying in the Olympics is a matter of national pride in Iran and Russia. Rasoul Khadem, Iran’s technical manager, explained it this way through a translator: “Where I come from, wrestling is not just a sport; it is a part of culture and history.”

Days after the IOC announcement, Burroughs and the U.S. team competed at the World Cup in Tehran. The Iranian fans kept asking for his T-shirts. Burroughs and other teammates shook hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a gesture of goodwill.

Burroughs said he saw the movie “Argo,” about the 1979 hostage crisis, about a week later and was glad he didn’t watch it before the trip because “I would’ve been freaking out.” Now he feels he has a more nuanced view of the country.

Whether Iranians’ opinions of the U.S. have been affected by wrestling’s show of unity is unclear. Iran’s state media did not report much on the arrival of the American wrestlers, which may stem from the official anger over the sanctions that have hit Iran’s critical oil exports and blacklisted the country from international financial networks. The attention was much greater in 1998 when U.S. wrestlers competed in Iran for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which cut ties between the countries.

Dake, the former Cornell star, hears from friends: “Are you really wrestling Iran? That is amazing. That has bigger implications than just wrestling. That has huge political implications.”

But to wrestling veterans like Jones, a 1992 Olympic silver medalist, the Iranians are just friendly rivals. He’s visited their homes, dined with their families.

“U.S. and Iran have this tension publicly. Really, I sit down and have dinner with them all the time,” Jones said. “Kind of sounds odd, right?”

Khadzhimurad Magomedov, one of the Russian coaches and a 1996 Olympic gold medalist, also finds that events like this week’s feel like reunions.

“We are eager to show here how friendly the wrestlers are to each other,” he said through a translator.

Russia’s contingent includes 2009 world silver medalist Rasul Dzhukaev at 163 pounds. Iran is led by two-time world champion Mehdi Taghavi Kermani at 145½ pounds and Olympic bronze medalists Ehsan Lashgari at 185 pounds and Komeil Ghasemi at 264½ pounds.

Burroughs, the reigning Olympic gold medalist at 163 pounds, promises some big throws and high-flying takedowns for the fans who bought tickets to Wednesday’s event. Rich Bender, USA Wrestling’s executive director, expects some serious passion from the wrestlers considering the stage and the stakes. The Iran match will be on NBC Sports Network, with the Russia match on Universal Sports.

“It’s their canvas,” he said. “It’s their opportunity to articulate to people the good in wrestling.”

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