United States and Iran met today at the Tokyo Olympics to play basketball. The elephant in the room, decades of geopolitical saber rattling and indirect violence, was nowhere to be seen. The Americans clapped as the Iranian national anthem played. The Iranians applauded “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Handshakes and niceties were exchanged before and after the match.
It was a match between opponents, not enemies. Historic relations between the United States and Iran may make that goodwill seem staggering, but today’s game perfectly highlights the difference in how governments interact and how normal people interact.
The history of hostility between the United States and Iran presents one debacle after another. There was 1953 Ajax operation, in which the United States overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh; then the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 and attack about the US Embassy in Tehran. The two countries officially cutout diplomatic relations in April 1980. President George W. Bush nicknamed Iran is part of the “Axis of evil“in 2002; the United States has long been the”Great satan“to Iran. The last few years have been full of attacks, threats, Y vitriol.
But there have been flashes of rapprochement and sports have brought some of that hope. In February 1998, the USA. sent wrestlers to a contest in Tehran, the first time American athletes had traveled to Iran since the 1979 embassy attack. The event made the cover of the magazine in English. Tehran Times. Members of the Iranian audience “he whistled in thanks“While the wrestlers competed. The spectators cheered even as Shawn Charles of the United States beat Iranian Mahdy Kaveh.”
Just two months later, Iran sent his own wrestlers to a competition in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Representative Robert W. Ney (R – Ohio) delivered congratulatory welcome remarks, with great fanfare from the Iranians in the crowd. As the competition drew to a close, the president of the Wrestling Federation of Iran, Mohammad Taleghani Announced on the arena floor he “looked forward to the day when everyone could attend a wrestling match in Iran.”
The positivity accumulated during these citizen exchanges helped initiate an open dialogue between government officials. Secretary Madeleine Albright and Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met later that year in the highest level diplomatic contact between the two nations since the hostage crisis. The United States even gotten up some penalties.
Progress eventually barn. But the possibility of reconciliation was there, and wrestling played a key role in easing tensions.
Sports have long built bridges where governments have fought. Perhaps the most famous example was the “ping-pong diplomacy” of the 1970s, when the United States and China interchanged table tennis players. The sporting event ushered in President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972, a turning point for Sino-US relations. The tactic would be used again in the 1999 Baltimore Orioles-Cuba national baseball team exhibition. Serieand once again in the 1998 World Cup match between the United States and Iran. From that exchange, American defender Jeff Agoos saying, “We did more in 90 minutes than politicians in 20 years.”
Today’s basketball game probably won’t be the Turning point in US-Iran relations. But with the two nations now restless renegotiating Under the terms of a nuclear deal, interactions between people like these cannot be underestimated. Although the efforts of private citizens cannot produce a treaty or reopen an embassy, peacefully engaging with someone who history says you should hate is no easy task.
It has often been normal people interacting with normal people, and not high-level political exchanges, which highlights what is possible for brutally opposed countries. By no means do the harsh rhetoric, sanctions, and tit-for-tat regional violence between the United States and Iran represent what the citizens of those two countries want. American basketball coach Gregg Popovich was right when lament today, “The Olympics, this is a place where sports transcends all that nonsense between governments … We just want this to happen in real life.”
But it is not is real life? Showcases like the Olympics are entertaining, but their true importance lies in showing how different people can come together and come together around common goals. Even the citizens of nations as antagonistic as the United States and Iran share the same wishes and aspirations, regardless of how their governments fight. Without these athletic arenas, where could representatives of the fiercest foes hang up their differences, agree to set aside decades of political hostility, and simply play ball?