For a rare afternoon at U.N. headquarters, the U.S. and Iranian governments took a break from bashing one another. Instead, they were getting ready to go to the mat.
The U.N. cafeteria provided the stage for a bout of international sports diplomacy, as American, Iranian, and Russian wrestlers gathered for lunch as well as an opportunity to rally behind a common cause: appealing to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to keep wrestling in the Olympics.
Today's U.N. event -- sponsored by USA wrestling, FILA, and the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling, and hosted by the U.N. Correspondent's Association -- comes one day before the Rumble on the Rails at Grand Central Station, a wrestling contest that will match up the world's best Greco Roman wrestlers from Iran, the world's top wrestling team, with the United States and Russia, two other national powerhouses.
It provided a forum for scripted diplomatic pronouncements about the importance of preserving the sport from senior Iranian and Russian diplomats, who recalled wrestling's long, revered place in their country's history. State Department officials were present at the event, but the U.S. government played a low-key role, absent from the list of speakers. Instead, a group of American wrestling advocates, including the actor Billy Baldwin, a former wrestler himself, took the podium to speak up for the sport on America's behalf.
Not surprisingly it wasn't Baldwin, but a young Olympian that best captured the spirit of the event, arguing that Greco Roman wrestling had something to teach international diplomats and politicians.
"We can get together, me and the Iranians and the Russians, and we can go out on the mat and physically do everything possible to beat the crap out of one another," explained Jake Herbert, 28, an American silver medalist in the 2012 Olympics. "No one is going to get killed; no one is going to get injured; you're going to leave it out on the mat and then be friends. We're united -- Iran, Russia, and the USA -- all through sports, something they have never been able to do through politics before and something they should be able to look at and learn."
In fact, the event provided a rare respite from the diplomatic clashes over a range of issues -- from Iran's nuclear ambitions to the international response to the Syria crisis -- that more typically define U.S. relations with Tehran. On Monday, Erin Pelton, spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, sounded off on Iran's upcoming assumption, through rotation, of the presidency of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament (CD), calling it "unfortunate and highly inappropriate."
"The United States continues to believe that countries that are under Chapter VII sanctions for weapons proliferation or massive human-rights abuses should be barred from any formal or ceremonial positions in U.N. bodies," she said. "While the presidency of the CD is largely ceremonial and involves no substantive responsibilities, allowing Iran -- a country that is in flagrant violation of its obligations under multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and to the IAEA Board of Governors -- to hold such a position runs counter to the goals and objectives of the Conference on Disarmament itself. As a result, the United States will not be represented at the ambassadorial level during any meeting presided over by Iran."
Despite the administration's diplomatic campaign to isolate Iran, the United States has largely embraced the effort to improve relations with Iran through wrestling. American wrestlers have competed against the Iranians 11 times since 1998, when USA Wrestling sponsored its first match in Iran in decades -- a 1998 competition at the Iranian Takhti Club in Tehran. In February of this year, the U.S. wrestling team competed in Tehran.
Just days before, on Feb. 12, the International Olympic Committee executive board recommended that wrestling no long be considered a core sport at the Olympics. A final decision will be made in September.
Mike Novogratz, an investor who helped organize the Grand Central wrestling matches through his organization Beat the Streets Wrestling, said it was an "absurd decision" by the IOC board to propose remove wrestling from the Olympics in 2020, describing it was one of the most popular sports in the Muslim world.
Wrestling advocates, he said, are seeking to use the New York event, as well as an upcoming match in Los Angeles, to raise international awareness about the sport and convince the IOC to reverse its decision. As a fall back, he said, wrestling organizers, have been considering asking the Olympic governing body to readmit wrestling as a new sport. In order to do that, they are considering improving the sports marketing component and implementing some changes in the rules to make it more accessible to younger audiences who have had trouble understanding the sport's sometime arcane rules.
It wouldn't hurt to see the Obama administration embracing the sport of wrestling with the same passion as Russian President Vladimir Putin and outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said Dan Gable, a 1972 Olympic gold medal winner who, as a coach, led the University of Iowa to 16 NCCA championships. "I really feel both in Russia and Iran wrestling comes right out of their government offices," he said. "Our president, Obama, he's not involved as much."
He said Obama had good reason to take an interest, noting that another American president from Illinois had a keen interest in the sport, one that he hoped Obama might be compelled to emulate. "Lincoln was a wrestler; he held matches on the White House lawn."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch