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Team USA withdraws from International Biology Olympiad, held this year in Iran

August 4, 2018

Bhav Jain of Murrysville was more than happy to attend the USA Biology Olympiad and meet up with some of the nation’s best science students this June in San Diego.

He was even happier to finish with a bronze medal among the top 12, qualifying for the 2018 International Science Olympiad as a Team USA member.

The venue for the final competition, however -- Tehran, Iran -- ultimately proved problematic, particularly after President Trump decided that the United States would withdraw from a nuclear deal with the Middle Eastern country.

That led to Team USA’s decision not to attend.

“It was a painfully made decision, after lengthy consideration and conversation at a board of trustees meeting,” said Joann DiGennaro, president at the Center for Excellence in Education, which oversees the USA Biology Olympiad.

DiGennaro said that up until May, “we were planning to have the team go, and that was with the help of U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who had spoken with the Iranian consulate.”

Jain, a rising senior at Franklin Regional, said he had concerns but was confident the team could make a safe trip to Iran.

“I thought it would be OK, but I definitely was a little worried overall,” he said. “It’s a region known for a lot of issues.”

The U.S. State Department issued a standing travel advisory for Iran on Jan. 10, noting there is a “very high risk of arbitrary arrest and detention of U.S. citizens” in the country. And despite DiGennaro’s conversations with Pickering, the federal government does not have official diplomatic or consular relations with Iran.

Team USA members were excited coming out of the national competition.

“Nationals was awesome,” Jain said. “I met 19 of the smartest students in the nation, and we learned a lot about animal and molecular biology.”

Team USA students regularly come home with some of the top medals from the international competition.

“We did inquire as to whether they could take the written exam (in the U.S.), but there would’ve been transparency issues, and probably a lot of complaints from other nations,” DiGennaro said.

On May 8, the U.S. officially withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, which among other things placed restrictions on Iran’s enrichment of uranium. On May 12, DiGennaro requested a written commitment from the Iranian consulate assuring the safety of Team USA members.

After waiting two weeks with no response, DiGennaro decided to pull out of the international competition.

“I received messages from many parents after we pulled out, that they agreed with the decision,” she said. “We were also getting a lot of questions from Western nations about whether the U.S. was going to participate.”

For Jain and his fellow Team USA members, it was simultaneously a relief and a disappointment.

“In the end, it was out of my hands,” he said.

The larger world of international politics put Team USA in a tough position, DiGennaro said.

“It is sad, but I think it was the wise thing to do,” she said of withdrawing from the competition, which took place July 15-22 in Tehran.

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