Pahlavan [پھلوان] roughly translates to “hero” or “champion” in Farsi. It is often used as an affectionate term for wrestlers in Iran, because the word doesn’t just describe a person of great physical strength but also one with spiritual fortitude and a moral code of honour that is indoctrinated in today’s Iranian wrestlers.

After the Iranian revolution the relationship between Iran and America was not in a good place. The notorious and drawn out US Embassy hostage crisis—an event still attracting media attention today through the Oscar winning film Argo—and the shoot down of an Iranian passenger plane by the US Navy, caused a total breakdown of formal diplomatic relations and resulted in the two nations communicating though intermediaries only.

In the late 90s however, both nations elected leaders who welcomed a new chance at dialogue with each other, and in 1998, America sends its first official delegation to Iran in almost 20 years. A delegation of wrestlers having accepted an invitation from Iran to attend the Takhti Cup, in wrestling circles a prestigious international tournament held yearly in Tehran.

For the first time since the revolution the American flag was raised on Iranian soil, without subsequently being burned, and as the American wrestlers entered the Azadi arena, they were cheered, not jeered, and received a roaring applause only matched by the applause received by Iran’s own team. Through sport, not through political brokering or diplomatic intermediaries, the Americans and Iranians were brought back together, and while on the wrestling mat the two men displayed the kind of animosity towards each other that we had come to expect from their host nations, outside the ring, through friendship and mutual respect, they showed that the two nations can be brought together in peace.

Pahlavan explores the hugely popular sport of wrestling in the context of sports diplomacy, the Takhti Cup of 1998, and the uncertainty surrounding wrestling’s future in the Olympics, a topic that has stirred up emotion across the heartland of America to the zoorkhanehs [gymnasiums] of Iran.