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Ping-Pong diplomacy, wrestling diplomacy

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By Akbar Falahzadeh

Wrestling World Cup competitions in Tehran recently came to an end and, according to Iranian state media, “valiant men” of the Islamic Republic lifted Americans with their hands and hurled them to the ground. They also defeated the Russians in Freestyle Wrestling and became “world champions.”

This championship, pitting Iran against the countries that Iranian politicians will have to wrestle with at the G5+1 negotiating table, was a welcome opportunity to come out of isolation, take the world stage and enjoy the exposure at the expense of the athletes’ backbone and determination.

Ahmadinejad was the first person to take this advantage and run with it. Athletes, however, regard Ahmadinejad as bad news. Remember a few years ago how his arrival at the stadium led to the defeat of the National Soccer team. For a long time he was cursed for causing that defeat. Sports fans in particular made every effort, begging Ahmadinejad to go anywhere he liked but to stay clear of sports venues during competitions. However, Ahmadinejad, who sees himself as the people’s choice, is not perturbed by such reactions.

Souvenir photo with American wrestlers and coaches

He also wanted to check out the Greco-Roman Wrestling matches in Tehran and planned to arrive at the stadium in the event of an Iranian victory. However, when he heard that the Russians are strong in this discipline, he thought better of it, but in Freestyle Wrestling, he waited until the Iranian team’s victory was guaranteed and then he immediately gathered a few of his ministers and entered the stadium from the VIP corridor to claim a piece of the victory.

Ahmadinejad tried one other time to beckon to the United States by taking a “souvenir photo” with American wresters and coaches. On five occasions during his last trip to New York, he also called for direct talks with the United States.
In view of the fierce pressure posed by sanctions, the government will exploit the American presence in Tehran to the fullest possible extent. Especially now that the elimination of wrestling from the Olympics games has become “the shared concern” of all wrestlers, politicians will take advantage of the smallest shared interest, despite their many differences, and throw their full support behind any cooperation proposals.

Ping-Pong diplomacy

The United States and China used ping-pong as an excuse to enter into talks in the 1970s. The lobby groups supporting direct talks between Iran and the U.S., next to all other overt and covert possibilities, are looking at wrestling to re-establish a relationship and provide the spark for negotiations.

Using athletes and sports for political relations is not a new strategy and it has a long history. In the case of China and the U.S. in the seventies, it became known as Ping-Pong Diplomacy.

Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger built this diplomacy. After the Chinese Revolution, the Chinese sided against the U.S. in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and the U.S. refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist government, regarding only Taiwan as the true Chinese government. The Chinese referred to the U.S. as the “paper tiger”, a title bestowed by Mao, who also called for the elimination of “U.S. imperialism.”

Hostile relations between China and the U.S. continued until the “Cultural Revolution” began revealing cracks in the Chinese leadership and destabilized its politics. Meanwhile, differences between China and the USSR reached an apex, which led to a series of military conflicts.

The Chinese, thus, decided to get closer to the U.S. in order to find an ally in their conflicts with the USSR, and the United States, in view of its troubles in Vietnam, welcomed building bridges with China.

Therefore, the Ping-Pong Championships in Japan in 1971 became a welcome opportunity for all parties. In the course of the competitions, the American athlete Glen Cowan befriended the Chinese champion Zhuang Zedong. Later, the head of China’s Ping-Pong Federation invited the American team to Beijing. Zhou Enlai expressed hopes that a new chapter had begun in the relationship between the two countries, which all became a prelude to Nixon’s official trip to China in 1972.

Wrestling diplomacy

Now we are observing a similar kind of diplomacy, only with wrestling, in relations between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic. After the opening march at the 41st FILA World Cup Wrestling championships, the athletes stood hand in hand, and representatives of the top world wrestling teams held large posters that said both in Persian and English: “Olympics without wrestling? Never, Never!”

Mitch Hull, the executive director of USA Wrestling, said: “We’ll be standing arm-in-arm with Iran and we'll be standing with Russia as we will with lots of other countries. Those (countries) really do make a difference because politically we’re not always on the same page, or politically with Russia, but in wrestling there’s no doubt that we are all together in this effort and we consider Iran one of our strongest allies in the sport of wrestling.”

He added: “We have great confidence that we can work with the Iranian wrestling federation, the Iranian wrestlers and really the Iranian people to show the world that, no matter what’s happening politically, we have the same goal and the same belief and passion about the sport of wrestling."

He went on to say that while building bridges between Iranian and U.S. wrestling teams is difficult, championships such as the World Cup are instrumental in promoting friendship and camaraderie, which is essential in this discipline.

All these niceties and expressions of friendship and sympathy did not just stay on paper; an invitation was extended to the Iranian team to travel to the U.S. Reports indicates that on the sidelines of the World Cup matches in Tehran, officials from the U.S. Wrestling Federation invited the Iranian Wrestling Federation to the U.S., so the Iranian team can participate in the Times Square Tournament three months from now.

The Iranian team last visited the U.S. for the 2003 World Cup. The Times Square Tournament is an annual open-air event where the public gathers to watch the matches. The Russian team has been invited to the event for the past two years.

Meanwhile, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland lauded the “displays of outstanding sportsmanship in the U.S.-Iran match” and expressed America’s willingness to enter into direct talks with Iran during the Kazakhstan talks.

Ping-Pong diplomacy with China and wrestling diplomacy with the Islamic Republic may be similar in many ways, but they also differ on several key issues. The main difference is the issue of power imbalance. The Ping-Pong diplomacy involved two superpowers; the wrestling diplomacy involves a superpower and a regional power. The other is the multiplicity of power centres and the protestations of the Islamic Republic, despite its urgent need to enter negotiations.
While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has called directly for bilateral talks, the leader of the Islamic Republic, unlike the Iranian president and foreign minister, has refused, saying: “Why would we need relations with the U.S.?”

Despite its leader’s reluctance, all evidence points to the fact that the Islamic Republic is prepared to enter into negotiations. The problem is how to go on justifying the “Death to America!” slogan that has been a useful tool for years and that many feel may still come in handy.

The Islamic Republic refuses relations with the U.S. with one hand but beckons them with the other.



[translated from the original in Persian]