Why the U.S., Russia, and Iran Can All Agree To Wrestle

Diplomatic relations may be frayed among these nations. But in New York City, they can together to try to save a sport

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Adam Golfer for TIME

From right: American Logan Stieber turns Russia's Opan Sat during at the Rumble on the Rails wrestling match in Grand Central Terminal in New York City, on May 15, 2013.

Correction Appended: May 16, 2013

Late Monday night in a residential neighborhood in Moscow, Russian security agents detained American diplomat Ryan Fogle, shoving him to the ground and allegedly ripping a dirty blonde wig off of his head. They later expelled him from the country on allegations he was a spy working for the CIA.

A little more than twenty four hours later, Logan Stieber, a 22-year-old from Monroeville, Ohio, mauled Russian Opan Sat and drove his head into a padded mat on the floor of New York’s Grand Central Terminal. The act drew no offense, but rather was celebrated as one of the most basic moves in the world’s oldest sport, which rallied disparate allies and genuine rivals with the singular goal of keeping wrestling in the Olympic program.

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The geopolitics of 2013 pretty much mandate that the U.S., Russia and Iran won’t agree on anything. Take your pick: the bloody civil war in Syria; Iran’s nuclear ambitions; America’s emergence as an energy producer. Even decades-old, Cold War animosities, which flare up from time to time in the form of accused spies and genuine meddling, have created nations that, at the very least, distrust one another.

For a few hours on Wednesday, none of that mattered, as the national teams from Iran, Russian and the U.S. squared off in exhibition matches meant to promote the sport and show the camaraderie among three great wrestling superpowers. Billed as the “Rumble on the Rails” and officially a fundraiser for Beat the Streets, a non-profit that supports youth wrestling teams in New York and Los Angeles, the three-way match came about in the wake of the February decision by the International Olympic Committee’s executive board to drop wrestling from the 2020 games. In the weeks since, athletes, coaches, diplomats, business leaders and celebrities have come out in support of wrestling, but the competition in Grand Central’s Vanderbilt Hall was the most tangible example yet of the sport’s ability to bridge cultural and ideological boundaries.

(MORE: How Can Wrestling Fight For Its Olympic Survival?)

As milestones go, the U.S. wrestling Iran is nothing new; the two teams squared off in late February at the World Cup in Tehran, where Iran defeated the Americans in front of a sold out crowd of more than 10,000 people. But before this week, the Iranian team hadn’t visited the U.S. in a decade. Wrestling is considered the national sport in Iran, and every Iranian match features hundreds and thousands of spirited fans. On Wednesday, they stood on temporary bleachers, chanting in unison as their team beat the Americans 6-1. The Iranian fans chanted in time with quick bleeps from horns, their calls reverberating off of Grand Central’s stone and marble walls.

In the one American victory, Kyle Dake, who six weeks ago won his fourth national championship for Cornell, made his international debut against Iran’s Hassan Tahmasebi. Because neither wrestler scored enough points in the initial periods, the match went to a criteria, where each wrestler starts a final period at a disadvantage. When it was Dake’s turn to hold the advantage, he wrapped his arms around Tahmasebi’s leg, and the second the referee blew the whistle, Dake lifted Tahmasebi five feet into the air, bringing him down on his back to end the match. The hundreds of Iranian fans sat stunned at the 22-year-old Dake’s performance, then almost in unison rose to their feet, clapping in respect as the ref raised Dake’s hand.

Given the current state of relations between the U.S and Iran, it was hard not to see a shred of optimism in the competition. But beyond geopolitics, the match was also a cultural milestone for some of the Iranian-Americans who came out to cheer on the team. “This was my first time and I loved it,” said Leila Irani, who grew up in Tehran until her early 20s and moved to the United States a decade ago. In Iran, women are not allowed to attend the matches, so Irani had to watch the sport for years on TV. “Now I know what I’ve been missing,” she said. “This is so much more fun that watching it on the television.”

Setareh Kowkabi, who was born in the U.S. to Iranian immigrants, loved seeing her culture on display and so many Iranian-Americans come to the match. But she also attributes the graciousness of some fans as an affinity for their adopted country. “At the end of the day, the United States gave us the opportunity to live in this country,” she said. “It’s about respect. No matter what, whatever’s going on politically or religiously, at the end of the day I’m an American, so the respect will always be there.”

Any sporting event between the U.S. and Russia carries the legacy of the decades where the two superpowers heated up the cold war in battles in the rink, on the basketball court and the wrestling mat. As the two teams faced each other across the mat, one could be forgiven for anticipating James Brown’s “Living in America” to come blaring over the loudspeakers. Instead they exchanged gifts and shook hands as the now solidly American crowd took to their feet.

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Both the American and Russian wrestlers came out swinging (not literally; there is no punching in wrestling), attacking forward, shooting in on the opponents’ legs and scrambling to the edge of the mat. Stieber kept the American crowd standing as he scored six points in the second period, but because of international wrestling’s arcane rules, the match was still up in the air in the third and final period, where he earned one more takedown for the victory.

The most anticipated match between the U.S. and Russia was at 74 kg (163 pounds) where Olympic Gold medalist Jordan Burroughs took on Saba Khubetzhty . One of the quickest, most athletic wrestlers in the world, Burroughs won the final two periods to beat Khubetzhty and cracked a molar in his tooth during a headlock. But a few minutes after the match, he was smiling as he signed autographs.

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In bringing together three of the sport’s superpowers, FILA, wrestling’s governing body, tried to highlight the sport’s appeal. Wrestling is global, they’ve argued, a sport found in 170 countries that’s popular from Scandinavia to Cuba, and from Asia to Europe. The rumble on the rails proved, they hope, that wrestling can serve as a beacon of diplomacy in a world where international relations have felt increasingly bankrupt. It’s a message they’ll refine over the next few weeks before FILA makes its case to the IOC executive board at the end of the month. Wrestling is now one of eight sports vying for a couple of new slots in the 2020 games, and on May 29, the executive board will make a recommendation that will be brought to the full IOC meeting in September.

For the athletes who got to compete in front of thousands of screaming fans at one of New York’s most iconic landmarks, the Olympics is their primary goal, a lifelong dream unlike any other in their sport. “We, Olympians, represent you, the people,” says Bruce Baumgartner, a three-time Olympic medalist and one of the most decorated American wrestlers in history. “That’s what’s so great about it. Everybody’s watching the wrestler, but he’s fighting for them.” For one day at least, as American, Iranian and Russian wrestlers fought each other, they also fought for one another. In a couple of weeks, they’ll know if that fight led to victory.

A previous version of this story said Logan Stieber wrestled Artas Sanaa. After a lineup change, Stieber wrestled Opan Sat, the No. 1 ranked freestyle wrestler at 60 kg; Stieber won 5-7, 6-0, 3-0. The article also stated that Jordan Burroughs won all three periods. The first period ended in a tie; Burroughs won 1-1, 5-0, 7-3.

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