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Coralville’s wrestling World Cup test of diplomacy
‘This is the way we allow free speech in the United States’
CORALVILLE — Although the event was designed around equality for women — with male and female wrestlers competing side-by-side on the same international stage for the first time in history — organizers of the 2022 Freestyle World Cup in Coralville over the weekend faced questions from Iranian spectators wanting more freedom to protest that government’s regime and oppression of women.
“The main reason to go there was to use that platform to be the voice of the Iranian people who are getting killed, injured, arrested, executed — to be their voice, that was the only chance we had,” said Mehran, 53, who is not being fully identified because of safety fears for loved ones still in Iran.
On Monday, Iran executed a second prisoner convicted over crimes committed during the nationwide protests challenging the country's theocracy, publicly hanging him from a construction crane. Activists have warned that at least a dozen more people already have been sentenced to death.
Originally from Iran, Mehran — who moved to the United States 15 years ago and lives in Columbus, Ohio — decided to drive to Iowa for its moment on the international stage.
But it wasn’t just Iranian wrestlers and protesters exemplifying the World Cup's global significance. It was the gold medal Ukraine’s women took home to a nation still under Russian siege. And it was the visit a Japanese university president paid Monday to University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson.
“It’s diplomacy,” Josh Schamberger, president of Think Iowa City, the Iowa City/Coralville area convention and visitors bureau, said of the event.
'No signs, no banners’
Most visible among the tournament’s international affairs were protesters chanting against the Iranian regime during the team’s matches — including its gold medal match against the United States — hoping to be streamed live in Iran.
And while event organizers didn’t take measures to quash that opposition inside the Xtream Arena, some protesters took issue with a policy banning flags, banners and signs — including Mehran, who brought with him from Ohio an Iranian revolution flag.
“We started writing some banners on cardboard, and I wrote some chants with calligraphy and tried to bring them inside,” he said. “Unfortunately, we were told that we are not allowed to do that. No signs, no banners, nothing. And I was wondering how you can have an international event and no one can show support with the flag?”
Another 41-year-old Iranian-born spectator, now living in Mount Vernon, ran into the same roadblock when he tried to protest inside the arena over the weekend.
“We had a bunch of stuff printed and prepared because we thought this event is going to be livestreamed in Iranian state media,” he told The Gazette. “Wrestling is huge there.”
But when he and his group showed up at Xtreme Arena with signs and banners — including Iranian opposition flags — they were told they’d have to leave them behind.
“I found it very unusual that for a sporting event, you're not allowed to take flags — and we're talking about an international event,” he said.
The arena’s “banners and signs policy” — which isn’t specific to certain flags or certain countries — bars anything that blocks the view of others, interferes with the event, presents a safety hazard or contains political or obscene material, among other things.
Event organizers did allow Iranian spectators and advocates to wear protest shirts, paint their hands red and shout chants throughout the tournament — despite pushback from the Iranian wrestling delegation wanting organizers to stifle cries from the crowd.
“There was an abundance of communication that was required from me to constantly remind certain members of the Iranian delegation that they should expect this; we’re not going to stop it, and this is the way we allow free speech in the United States,” said Schamberger, who helped organize the event.
The back-and-forth with Iranian fans and officials typified the tight rope organizers had to walk to create a safe and comfortable venue for wrestling fans and competitors while also making space for the diplomatic role of such a high-profile event occurring at a time of international political tensions.
“I'm in a tough spot here because I'm actually here to run a wrestling tournament, and (United World Wrestling) is putting on a wrestling tournament, and Iran has qualified,” Schamberger said. “And I told (the Iranians) from the moment I picked them up at the airport to the moment they left this morning that I am going to do everything in my power to make sure that they are safe, and that they feel welcome.”
Though some protesters felt organizers catered to the Iranian government and regime by barring flags and banners, Schamberger said that couldn’t be farther from the truth — recounting one incident in which he shut down a request that a man, instead of a woman, carry Iran’s flag.
“When the flags came out, there was a woman carrying the (Iranian) flag,” Schamberger said, which prompted a member of the UWW staff to run up and demand a man instead.
“So I ran over there myself, and I said, ‘What is happening?’” Schamberger said. “And he goes, ‘Josh, it is very offensive to the Iranian delegation if the woman carries the (Iranian) flag. It must be changed.’”
Schamberger wasn’t having it, and told him, “We're in America.”
“This isn't the way it works here,” he said. “She's a woman. She can carry the flag. And it’s going to happen that way, or the flag won't be out there. Go back and keep the show going.”
Moments of humanity
Despite political tension in an arena already wound with the energy of Olympic-level grappling, few incidents occurred demanding police or security involvement. In fact, moments of humanity brightened the event from start to finish — with America’s elite hugging Iranian opponents after matches; Iowans pulling aside Iranian protesters to ask more about the issues; and international visitors angling to learn more about America and Iowa — like the Iranian wrestlers who after their gold-medal dual Sunday spent hours learning to throw a football, Schamberger said.
During the U.S. squad’s first dual against Mongolia, when American standout Jordan Burroughs went to shake the opposing coach’s hand after his win, the Mongolian coach took the opportunity to snap a selfie with the international star.
And then Sunday, when the Ukranian women took the gold, the crowd offered a standing ovation.
On Monday, Kuniko Tanioka — president of Shigakkan University in Japan — met with UI President Wilson to discuss the potential for a women wrestling-specific sister-city alliance, given the Hawkeyes just launched the first Power Five conference women’s wrestling program.
Coralville also has landed the 2023 Men’s and Women’s Freestyle World Cup — meaning the event will return next year, and with it the international spotlight.
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