How Wrestling Connects the US and Iran

Aug. 21, 2014, 11:37 a.m. (ET)

BY MICHAEL RAND

Sports have always had a special ability to bridge gaps in cultures, even between two seemingly opposite forces, but nobody from the USA Greco-Roman wrestling team was ready for what happened in Iran during the World Cup in May.

Against a backdrop of tension between the two countries, including tougher sanctions imposed against Iran by the U.S. in 2013 and escalating rhetoric in the media on both sides, the U.S. contingent traveled to Tehran for a tournament and left with something potentially bigger: a chance for citizens of both countries to better understand and appreciate one another.

U.S. wrestlers were cheered and treated like rock stars by Iranian fans. Kiki Kelley, the U.S. Team Leader, broke a major barrier as she became the first woman admitted into an Iranian wrestling arena—a breakthrough step for her in what has become a lasting relationship with countless people in the Middle East.

“What it comes down to is people being people,” says USA Greco-Roman team member Robby Smith, who received countless ovations and chants from the crowd in Iran. “You can be enemies of people you’ve never met before, or you can embrace them. And that’s what wrestling did. It’s really neat and an awesome experience.”

BREAKING BARRIERS

As Steve Fraser, the coach of the team at the time, was planning the trip to Iran, he did what he would normally do: include Kelley on the official travel roster. In Iran, though, societal norms are much different; women are seldom allowed into venues such as a wrestling arena.

“I invited her before I thought about the potential difficulty of her going,” Fraser acknowledges.

A day before the trip, the U.S. squad finally gained clearance for Kelley to go. She scrambled to get her visa in order, and decided she would wear a traditional Muslim headscarf—also known as a hijab—in her picture. She was so pressed for time, though, that she used a pair of pajamas wrapped on her head and had the photo taken at a local drug store.

Kelley says she had no reservations about wearing the garb because in the grander scheme of things she felt it gave her a better chance to be accepted by the Iranian people.

“If I were a younger woman, in my 20s, I might have been rebellious,” says Kelley, 43. “But at this point in my life, I’m only respectful. I’m going to their country. I’ve been raised to be polite. I’m already a modest woman. It doesn’t matter to me what I’m dressed like.”

Wearing the scarf led to a media interview in Iran in which she was asked about it. Kelley’s answer that she was trying to show respect for the country was a key factor in her being allowed into the arena for the competition.

Subsequent interviews led to an invitation from the Iranian Ministry of Sports for Kelley to stay in the country, at their expense, for six extra days after the competition ended. In that time, and in the months that followed, Kelley has continued to both learn about Middle Eastern culture while teaching others about American culture.

“It’s surreal, and the people and country are nothing like what we’ve come to believe. I had misconceptions dropping by the minute, and they had similar misconceptions about what an American woman is,” Kelley says. “I don’t paint countries with broad brush strokes. As long as what I’m doing and saying is beneficial to USA Wrestling, to my country, to other women and athletes throughout the world, I’ll continue to speak.”

“What it comes down to is people being people. You can be enemies of people you’ve never met before, or you can embrace them. And that’s what wrestling did." - Robby Smith, US World Team Member

FAN FAVORITE

On the mat, the U.S. contingent was an equally big hit.

“It’s a huge, huge wrestling country. When you’re over there, it’s like being an NBA player here,” Fraser says. “The Iranian people, first of all, have an enthusiasm for wrestling, and, second of all, had a friendliness and kindness to the U.S. team. It was one of the kindest places I’ve been, and I’ve been to over 50 countries. I had a special feeling from the Iranian people.”

The biggest and most unexpected cheers, though, came for Smith. He lost the first two bouts in the World Cup and was trailing 3–0 in his next match when his Russian opponent took a medical timeout. Frenzied fans were beating drums and blasting horns.

“I had it in my head, and I started nodding my head to the beat, and the crowd starts going crazy,” Smith says. “I come back, I tie up the match 3–3, and now they’re going nuts. The guy takes another medical break and they’re chanting, ‘R. Smith, R. Smith.’ I win the match and the whole place erupts, loudest I’ve ever heard.”

He became a fan favorite throughout the rest of the tournament, and the entire U.S. team was cheered wildly whenever they entered the arena.

“There were thousands of Iranians chanting ‘U-S-A, U-S-A.’ They had me throw t-shirts and hats to fans,” Smith says. “It all started with me just nodding my head to the beat, and them appreciating it. It was something else.”

MOVING FORWARD

U.S. wrestlers are looking forward to seeing their Iranian counterparts at the FILA World Championships in Uzbekistan in September, and there are hopes of bringing Iranian wrestlers to the U.S. for a meet in suburban Chicago in November.

Fraser and Smith said they had friends and family concerned for their safety before their May trip to Iran, but both said they would go back without hesitation.

“I never felt a threat or any hatred,” Smith says. “All I felt was love.”

Kelley says she now talks for hours every day on social media with young people from Middle Eastern countries, answering their questions about the United States and American culture. She’s visited the U.S. State Department and might soon become an official Sports Envoy.

“Sports can bring people together. … I’m not in the job of politics. My job is to take care of people and try to bring peace wherever possible. That message has served me very well,” Kelley says. “I think something bigger than all of us is happening here, and I think wrestling is in a unique position to bridge gaps and make friendships with unlikely countries.”