Sports Diplomacy

Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, the traditionally well-regarded diplomatic channels have failed to reconcile the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States. The drawn-out US Embassy hostage situation and the accidental shoot down of an Iranian passenger plane by the US Navy caused a total breakdown of formal diplomatic relations between the two nations. But through this diplomatic quagmire, a less conventional method of reconciliation started to gain appeal. Wrestling.

Sports by nature, and wrestling in particular, involve intense competition, rivalry, and conflict, none of which seem useful in reconciling nations like the United States and Iran. However, though these elements may appear to serve a counter-diplomatic end, sports diplomacy has on numerous occasions confined these rivalries strictly to the playing field, even subliminating them into something bilaterally constructive.  The end result being, to emphasize similarities over differences between both nations’ players and fans, thereby making an eventual rapprochement possible.

Sports diplomacy is predicated on the notion that everyday citizens are captivated more by their shared humanity they observe in the stadium than by the fierce metaphors deployed by pundits and media commentators. Fans in an international sporting match may not always cheer for the opposing national team, but they often feel a strong—even personal—connection to its players. In no sport has this been as visible than in wrestling.

The most memorable moment of sports diplomacy through wrestling appeared in 1998 when in a high-profile break with Islamic Republic precedent, the newly-inaugurated Reformist President Khatami cited sporting links as one means to overcome the American-Iranian cultural divide, and invited American wrestlers to partake in the annual Takhti Cup, a prestigious wrestling tournament in Tehran. Weeks after this call to crack the “wall of mistrust” separating American and Iranian athletes, the Americans sent their first delegation to Iran since the revolution almost twenty years prior. A delegation of wrestlers.

Both sides offered simple, yet striking goodwill gestures during the match: one American wrestler waved a miniature Iranian flag, and the twelve thousand Iranian spectators responded by chorusing “America” loudly, omitting the menacing part of the chant. After competing, an American and Iranian wrestler shared an extended, spontaneous embrace. With the help of a cooperative crowd and well-intentioned athletes, wrestling had brought citizens from each side together, in a fully literal sense. They were not official representatives of their countries. They were citizen diplomats who, through sports, were able to touch deep-seated feelings.