Protest Disrupts Iran-US Wrestling
Jul. 26, 1998
NEW YORK (AP) _ Exile groups protesting the militant Islamic government in Tehran interrupted Saturday night's Goodwill Games wrestling match between the United States and Iran.
After Behnam Taiebi scored a 5-0 shutout against American Sam Henson, Tony Purler of the United States entered the ring for his bout against Mohammad Talaie. But Talaie did not appear and the Iranians refused to wrestle because of protesting fans in the stands.
After 20 minutes, Talaie entered the ring waving an Iranian flag and the match continued.
Hundreds of Iranian fans were wearing T-shirts bearing the name and picture of Maryam Rajavi, head of the National Council of Resistance in Iran, and appeared to be the center of the dispute.
When the match resumed, a dozen security guards flooded the area of the fans, and large banners bearing the portrait of Rajavi appeared to have been removed. At least one fan with a Rajavi T-shirt was shown on TV being taken from the hall by city police.
``A group of fans was protesting politically in the stands. The Iranian team leader took offense and left with his team,'' said Larry Sciacchetano, president of USA Wrestling. ``What they asked us to to do was to clear the protesters from the arena. We had a hard time convincing them that this is a free society.''
John Smith, coach of the American team, said something was said to one of the Iranian wrestlers on the floor that triggered the protest.
``They disagree with the politics going on in Iran,'' he said. ``This is not the place. This is a sporting event. It should be about sports.''
Many in the capacity crowd of 5,400 at the Theater at Madison Square Garden waved small green-white-and-red Iranian flags. American fans favored a raucus ``USA-USA-USA'' chant.
As they were introduced, the wrestlers shook hands, with the Americans handing the Iranians small coins. It was as if old friends were greeting each other; in fact, these wrestlers know each other from previous international meets, most recently the World Cup in April in Stillwater, Okla.
A block away from the Garden, Moslem E. Filabi sat in a hotel lobby, unable to watch his country's team, afraid of the stir his presence in the arena might create.
For 10 years, from 1966-76, Filabi wrestled on the Iranian national team. He appeared in three Olympics for his country, won 17 gold, silver and bronze medals in international competitions and was honored as a national hero. He left Iran in 1982, three years after the revolution.
``Getting out was not a problem,'' he said. ``Inside was a problem.''
Filabi believes that remains the case, that his homeland is being pillaged by the current regime and that the wrestling team is being used in an effort to repair his nation's image.
``Once, Iran was a rich country,'' he said. ``Now it is a poor country.''
Filabi is a member of the National Council of Resistance of Iran which seeks the overthrow of the current government, which he says is repressive domestically and sponsors terrorism internationally.
And, he said, the regime is using the wrestlers for no purpose other than to improve its image.
``They are playing politics,'' he said. ``They say they are here for sports. They are here to cover up what is going on in my country, the people who are executed, the ones who are jailed. If they are here for sports, why weren't they here five years ago or 10 years ago?''
The Goodwill Games match was the second recent sports meeting between the countries. Iran defeated the United States 2-1 in World Cup soccer in Lyon, France, last month, setting off huge celebratiobns nin the streets of Tehran.
The Iranian wrestlers have been careful to avoid political topics on this trip and when an American team traveled to Tehran in February, the wrestlers were welcomed warmly by the people. Iranian wrestlers who traveled to a World Cup meet in Oklahoma last spring, however, complained of being photographed and fingerprinted by immigration officials when they entered the United States,