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Society & Culture

The Mystery of the Fugitive Wrestler

September 17, 2015
IranWire Citizen Journalist
6 min read
The Mystery of the Fugitive Wrestler
The Mystery of the Fugitive Wrestler
The Mystery of the Fugitive Wrestler
The Mystery of the Fugitive Wrestler
The Mystery of the Fugitive Wrestler
The Mystery of the Fugitive Wrestler
The Mystery of the Fugitive Wrestler

An Iranian citizen journalist, who writes under a pseudonym to protect his identity, wrote the following article on the ground inside Iran.

Mohsen Hajipour, an Iranian Greco-Roman wrestler who has won many gold medals in international competitions, is at the center of a mystery that has gripped the Iranian public.

As a reserve member of Iran’s national wrestling team, Hajipour traveled to the 2015 World Wrestling Championship in Las Vegas, which took place from September 7 to September 12. A day after the competition ended, the Iranian news agency Mehr reported that Hajipour had “refused to return to Iran along with the members of the Iranian National Greco-Roman Team without providing any reasons and without prior notice.”

“It is still not clear whether he is staying in the US or whether he will be returning with the members of the Free-Form Wrestling Team,” Mehr reported.

The Mehr report also says that Hasan Babak, the manager of the Greco-Roman Team, also failed to return to Iran with the rest of the team, adding further intrigue to the story. “The fact that Hasan Babak has remained in the US shows that Hajipour’s [attempt to seek] asylum is serious and Babak intends to encourage him to come back,” the report said. Babak was said to have been due to return to Iran shortly.

According to Mehr, before leaving his hotel in Las Vegas, Hajipour had informed friends that he did not intend to return to Iran.

The Iranian state-run news site Asr-e Khabar — which refers to asylum seekers as “fugitives” or “defectors” — confirmed that efforts were underway “to persuade to defector wrestler to return to Iran so as to prevent yet another dishonor to [Iranian] wrestling.”

Then, two days later, on September 15, three Iranian news agencies — Fars, Nasim and Tasnim — reported that Hajipour had denied he was seeking asylum. “Unfortunately, certain domestic media have reported that I have sought asylum in America,” all three outlets reported. “This is absolutely not true. This has created a bad atmosphere. How could they say such things without knowing the facts and without evidence or investigation? With the permission of the federation officials and considering the free-form team was scheduled to return to Iran later, I stayed in the US for a few days longer. It was arranged that I would return with them. My reputation and my country are of paramount importance to me and I would never do anything that could play into the hands of foreigners.”

Although the Hajipour controversy could be a simple misunderstanding, the background to the story, along with other media reports, suggest that the story is not as straightforward as it seems.

Along with football, wrestling holds a special place in the hearts of most Iranians — it has been the one sport in which Iranians have shined on the international stage for decades. Starting with the legendary Gholamreza Takhti in the early 1950s, the Iranian public has regarded wrestling champions as heroes rather than sportsmen. So, with this in mind, it is easy to see why questions are raised whenever Iranian wrestlers falter on the international stage in any way.

At the 2012 London Olympics, the Iranian Greco-Roman wrestling team, under coach Mohammad Bana, won three gold medals, a record for Iran. The International Wrestling Federation selected Bana as the best coach of the year.

Now, a year ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics, Iran’s hopes have been dashed in Las Vegas. Iranian wrestlers won only one silver and one bronze medal at the competition. For Iranian wrestling fans, this was a nightmare. And they blame Iranian officials responsible for wrestling for this failure, from the minister of sports down.


Not Paid for 15 Months

Mohammad Bana resigned from coaching the Iranian national team about a year ago, following public disagreements with Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports Mahmoud Goodarzi and his protégé and former wrestling champion Rasoul Khadem, who is currently president of Iran’s Wrestling Federation and an executive board member of the National Olympic Committee of Iran. Since then, the team has been struggling — among other things — with severe financial problems, which led to a verbal altercation between Omid Nowroozi, a gold medalist representative for wrestlers, and Minister Goodarzi.

“You know that we have not been paid for 15 months,” Nowroozi told the minister. “The treasury is empty,” replied the minister, laughing. “You want money? Come and take whatever is there.” Nowroozi’s retort to the laughing minister was sharp and uncompromising. “You can’t do it?” he said. “Then what are you doing here? You can get together 30 billion tomans for [football teams] Esteghlal and Persepolis in an hour but you cannot pay the wrestlers what you owe them?”

The minister stopped laughing and became angry. “I don’t want anybody to tell me what my duty is. Who are you to talk like this?”

“I am an Olympic champion,” Nowroozi said. “Who are you?”

After this confrontation, Nowroozi joined Bana and quit the team.

When it was time to decide on the lineup of the Iranian team going to Las Vegas, Rasoul Khadem selected Hamid Sourian to compete in the category for which Mohsen Hajipour was qualified, even though Hajipour had defeated Sourian in qualification games. And in Las Vegas, Sourian lost a golden opportunity for Iran — instead of winning a gold medal.

After Sourian lost to a wrestler from the republic of Azerbaijan, Hajipour apparently visited his dressing rom and shouted at Ahad Pazach, the new head coach. “This is what you get for trampling on my rights,” he said. “When you do that, this is what you get.”

In response, Pazach, who was already in a bad mood because Sourian had lost, verbally assaulted Hajipour. Only intervention of behalf of others, including Sourian himself, prevented the quarrel from becoming physical. The same night, it is reported that Hajipour told Sourian that he had no intention of returning to Iran.

Hajipour does not have family or friends in the United States. So perhaps when he read that the news had broke about him seeking asylum in the States, he began to worry about his family in Iran and the possibility that they could be targeted in retaliation against his actions. He called the head of federation, Rasoul Khadem, who reportedly pleaded with him to return to Iran. In response, Hajipour was said to have set two conditions: First, that his life would be safe and, second, that he would be eligible to take part in future competitions.

Khadem went even further: He promised Hajipour that he would compete at the Rio Olympics if he returned to Iran.

Shortly after this conversation, Hajipour spoke to Voice of America and denied claims that he was seeking asylum. “I will never exchange my homeland for anywhere else, especially the country that we call ‘Great Satan’. I will never sell out my homeland.”

Given these reports, it is obvious that earlier accounts were not simply a misunderstanding. But what does it say about others from Iran’s wrestling team who may have been tempted to defect, either recently or in the past? Have they also been persuaded to stay? 


By Pedram Ghaemi, Citizen Journalist


Related articles:

America’s Wrestling Ambassador to Iran

The Failure of Six Pack Diplomacy


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