U.S., Iran, Russia team up to save wrestling

On the world stage, the U.S. is in dire conflict with Iran and Russia. On the wrestling mat, the three powers in the sport suddenly are in alliance.

“I think without a doubt we’re together on the wrestling front,” says Greg Strobel, two-time former U.S. Olympic wrestling coach and former coach at Lehigh University. “We’ll be working together.”

The executive board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted this week to drop wrestling from the program for the 2020 Olympics. There is still a chance it may be reinstated, but it must compete with seven other sports for a single opening in 2020.

Next Thursday and Friday in Tehran, the U.S. will be among world’s top-10 wrestling nations competing in the 2013 Freestyle World Cup. Jordan Burroughs and Jake Varner, U.S. gold medalists at the 2012 Olympics, will take on the Iranians, Russians and more.

The shared interest right now: Olympic survival.

“I’m headed to Iran on Monday, and this is a main topic of my conversation with the leadership of the Iranian wrestling federation,” says Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling.

“We are going to use every ounce of our resources to do whatever we can as a national federation to reverse that. That might be leading internationally, which we are prepared to do if that’s what it takes.”

The U.S. doesn’t figure to go it alone.

At the 2000 Olympics, American Rulon Gardner did a back flip after he won a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling with a heavyweight upset of three-time Olympic champion and previously undefeated Alexander Karelin of Russia.

The U.S., Russia and Iran will remain fierce rivals on the mat. But Gardner calls for world wrestling unity.

“We need to pull everyone in the world together and get everyone on the same page 100%,” says Gardner. “We need other countries like Russian on board to help us. We can’t let this sport die. We need to act quickly and do everything we can to keep this great sport alive.”

Sellout crowds are expected next week at the Azadi Sports Complex in Tehran. Other nations entered include Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Japan, Belarus, Bulgaria and Turkey.

U.S. stars such as Burroughs and Varner will be recognized by the Iranians fans. Strobel, a member of USA Wrestling’s executive committee, can attest to that.

“It’s their national sport. I would think Iran would be devastated without having wrestling in the Olympics,” says Strobel.

“They’re really into it. I coached the junior world team in 1997, and the championships were in Denmark. It was the year after the Olympics, and I coached in the ’96 games. As I got on the bus to go over to the venue, these Iranians were on the bus. We’re talking 18-year-olds. And they all go, ‘Coach Strobel! ‘ I said, ‘How do you know I’m coach Strobel?’ ” They go, ‘Oh, we see you at the Olympics.’

“They watched every match of the Olympics.”

Whether anybody gets to watch wrestling at the 2020 Olympics is in doubt.

Strobel on what the Olympics mean to wrestling: “The Olympics is the pinnacle, the best you can do.”

By USA Today


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