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How the US, Iran, and Russia Came Together to Save Olympic Wrestling

For one day, on May 15, 2013, the scene outside the Vanderbilt Hall of the historic Grand Central Terminal in New York City was one for the history books. Amongst the bustle of the city’s daily commuters racing to catch their trains loomed large and brutish wrestlers from some of the strongest national wrestling teams in the world. Flanked by their coaches, security and handlers, the teams moved into the crowded hall and were met by cheering fans from around the world who had enthusiastically gathered for the sole purpose of the day: to reverse the International Olympic Committee's decision to remove Wrestling as an Olympic sport by the 2020 Summer games in Tokyo.

On that day the nations competing for the cause could not have been more politically and ideologically disparate. In Russia, Putin continued his pursuit against free speech within the LGBT community and had a close call with US diplomats a few weeks earlier when two Russian Tu-95 Bear strategic bombers equipped with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles circled the United States territory of Guam, potentially violating treaties between both countries. In Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was plagued by his incendiary comments in front of the United Nations a few months prior, and US officials were slamming the country with economic sanctions in hope of inspiring a fair democratic election for Ahmadinejad's replacement.

Photos by Mark Phillips

But on this day, the wrestling heroes of the three countries stood side by side, untied briefly for a common cause. At a UN press conference announcing the event a day earlier, Nenad Lalovic, the acting president of FILA explained, “We now have come face to face with our biggest challenge, one that will determine the future of our sport. We love our sport, and we are united to save it.” UFC stars and celebrities alike attended the event, many donning the trademark "Save Olympic Wrestling" shirts. Jon Jones, Randy Couture, and Daniel Cormier are just a few of the fighters who cite wrestling as the crucial beginning to their professional fighting careers.  

The Iranian fans were the loudest throughout the night, and team Iran quickly won six of seven matches against a Team USA squad in men's freestyle. Later team USA made the strongest statement, powering over notoriously dangerous Team Russia with an impressive 8-1 victory.  But most importantly, the event worked.   

After the buzz from Rumble On The Rails and the "Save Olympic Wrestling" campaign reverberated around the world, the International Olympic Committee announced the results of a secret ballot cast September 8, 2013 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. With a majority 49 votes out of 95, wrestling was placed back in the 2020 Tokyo games and its place in Olympic history was secured. In the same vote, the IOC removed wushu, karate, roller sports, sport climbing and wake-boarding from the summer games. The outcome served as another strong testament to the uniting power of wrestling for countries around the world. Rumble On The Rails was brilliantly calculated to bring people and athletes from countries that did not see eye to eye, and unite—if only for one day—for one common cause. 

Words by Justin Staple



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