Hooman “Mo” Tavakolian is an accomplished wrestler, businessman and sports diplomat. As part of his work to bring together Iranian and American athletes, in February 2017, he brought a team of American wrestlers to compete in the 2017 Freestyle Wrestling World Cup in Kermanshah, Iran.
But it almost didn’t happen. When United States president Donald Trump introduced his executive order severely limiting citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US, including Iran, the Iranian government struck back. On February 3, the foreign ministry in Tehran announced that the US wrestling delegation would not be allowed into the country. Tavakolian immediately took action, and, working with Iran’s Wrestling Federation, was successful in persuading the Iranian government to reverse its decision.
“I was picking up phone calls at 3am,” Tavakolian says. “But to be honest, I never lost faith. I knew this was going to happen. It had become more than just a wrestling match. It had become such a political issue. I knew Iran was going to show the world that they're better. When the judge actually challenged the executive order, that was my opening. I have been on many tours to Iran with athletes, and this one was by far the one that's going to last forever for me.”
The US athletes had been prepared to accept the tournament wasn’t going to take place, and some worried they might be entering a hostile environment. But the Iranian Wrestling Federation didn’t give up, taking it to Iran’s Ministry of Sport and other officials.
“They got the royal treatment,” Tavakolian says of the US wrestlers’ visit. “The place was chanting ‘USA’ the whole time. It was unbelievable. That's something you will probably not see on Iran state TV! But I was there in the stadium and everyone was holding signs saying ‘We're not terrorists’ or ‘We support humanity.’ I told everyone: your job is to go back and tell five people, and spread the news.”
From Tehran to Great Neck, Long Island
Tavakolian and his family left Iran in 1986, during the Iran-Iraq war. “I remember the sirens at night and running to the basement and staying there, and turning the lights and the power off. I still remember that as if it was yesterday.” Today, he acknowledges the impact of the war for Iranians. “My mom's cousin was killed,” Tavakolian says. “It's amazing because there's a whole generation, the people about five or six years older than me, all the males are gone. There's a gap in the population”.
The family lived in Shemiran, north of Tehran. Tavakolian’s mother was a math and science teacher at a middle school. His father was a pilot, and later left the air force when he married in 1975. He then joined his brothers in the jewelry business.
Before they left Iran, life was difficult for his family. “The government seized our assets for a couple of years. My dad had to prove that we weren't pro-Shah. They asked, ‘How did you have this business?’ I still remember that as a child. I had a German Shepherd, and we had to give it away because it wasn't according to Islamic law to have dogs at home.”
When the family first arrived in the United States, life continued to be extremely difficult. “It was a total culture shock. I didn't speak the language at all. We didn't own anything. We had to struggle again. I was raised in poverty growing up in America.” Although they moved to Great Neck, Long Island, an affluent town with a large Persian community, they had nothing. His mother worked as a caterer and went to school at night. His father ran a small store. Tavakolian also worked — delivering newspapers, working in a bread store, and as a bus boy.
And that’s when wrestling came in. “My parents put me in sports so I would stay out of trouble since they had to work to make ends meet,” he says. “I would go to school, and after school I would have wrestling practice, and by the time I would get home it would be six or seven pm, I would do my homework and be in bed by nine.” Wrestling helped him focus on his dreams of success, and the wrestling community provided a secure ballast for him, despite the hardship and poverty his family endured.
Wrestling and Iranian-US Relations
He continued to wrestle in college, competing at the NCAA Division 1 level for Long Island’s Hofstra University, and then for Hunter College in New York. He went on to become an assistant coach while he studied for his MBA in international management. Even when he began working on Wall Street, he continued to wrestle. He retired from competitive wrestling in 1999, but later came back to compete at the USA Wrestling Veterans Nationals, winning the championship in 2009 and 2010.
It was during a trip back to Iran that Tavakolian began to see how his wrestling might help others. “I went back to Iran when I was 20 years old for the first time since I had left, to wrestle and practice during that summer, to train with the Iranians. That's how it all started with my contacts. I brought all these used wrestling shoes from my team and my teammates, and I gave it to the kids there.”
But it was later, in 1998, during the 2003 world championships, that he really began to see how sport and wrestling could have an even bigger impact, and even hep US-Iranian relations. His desire to give back to the communities that had helped him suddenly began to take shape.
“I was able to sit in the stands and look down and see how all these different countries that have all these political issues and wars were all on the same mats shaking hands and wrestling. I kind of clicked at that point and said, "This wrestling mat is just like the real world, right? People go on it, they have respect for each other. They don't speak the same language, they don't have the same religion, they have different ideologies, but they still get along. So there's hope for humanity.”
In his job as wrestling ambassador, Tavakolian has to deal with both the US State Department and Iranian intelligence agents. He knows his social media accounts are monitored when he’s in Iran, but at the same time, he doesn’t encounter any problems from intelligence agents. “They know my whole objective is sports,” he says. “At one point, I posted a photograph of me wearing a T-shirt with two hearts with the US flag and the Iranian flag on Instagram. And literally, two or three minutes after I posted it they came up and told me to take it down.”
“Become Your Own Dream”
Tavakolian sits on the board of New York's Beat the Streets, which promotes youth development through wrestling. In 2011, he and his wife founded the “Become Your Own Dream” scholarship, which offers financial support to underprivileged inner-city kids planning to pursue wrestling while in further education. “It dissuades them from joining gangs or getting into crime,” says Tavakolian. “They get on the mat, wrestle, and provide themselves some self-confidence and perhaps a brighter future. One of our recipients, Ahmed Al Sayyed, ended up going to Brown University and now he's in medical school. My rule with everyone is: if I help you, you help somebody else.”
Beat the Streets organized 2016’s “United in the Square,” a high-profile fundraiser that attracted a huge audience and saw US and Iranian freestyle wrestlers competing in New York’s Times Square. “It's one of the biggest events in the wrestling world,” says Tavakolian. “We showed the world that we're united through sport.” He’s proud that the organization has a strong remit to promote gender equality, one of his passions.
What does he think of the Iranian government’s policy banning women from stadiums? “There's a lot of resistance,” he says. “When I was there, there was a female foreign delegate there from Russia. I don't think they will turn down a foreign guest.”
For the last two years, Tavakolian has also managed Behnaz Shafiei, Iran’s first female motocross champion. He plans to bring her to race in the States, ideally in late April.
Is Tavakolian worried that his work will be affected by Trump administration policies? “We were able to get her a visa right before Trump went in, and the State Department helped me with that,” he says. “I have heard through the grapevine that the executive order may not apply to sports exchanges. I am hoping this holds true. It doesn't make sense at all to me why he [President Trump] would pick Iran. There hasn't been a terrorist act from an Iranian on American soil, or toward an American.”
In 2016, Tavakolian was elected to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. “It's a great honor,” he says, adding that he is not the first Iranian-American to have been inducted – though he is its youngest member. “Being recognized shows I am making some sort of a difference around the world with my work. I hope other people are motivated by it, and it's contagious, and jump on the bandwagon and start helping out. It takes a whole group effort. It also just shows that I have to improve my game and do more. That's how I see it. No time for rest.”
And although he’s looking forward to the ceremony on April 28, it’s a busy time for him. After all, that’s right around the time that he hopes Behnaz Shafiei will arrive in the States.
“She will be racing along with an American in California,” he says. “Just imagine: two female motorcyclists. One takes her helmet off, and she's got a hijab on and the other one has her long blonde hair. It's showing the world how two very different people are so alike. That's what sports diplomacy is all about.”