Sporting events often find themselves at the center of political conflict. At times, the environment surrounding the event itself exceeds the mere spectacle of competition. This was the case in 1996 when American Kurt Angle and Iranian Abbas Jadidi reached the Olympic finals in the men’s 100kg weight class. By 1996, United States settled into its role as the world’s sole super power. The Soviet Union, America’s former nemesis, collapsed five years earlier. Without communism as an ideological enemy, the US shifted its focus to the rise of radical Islam and the anti-western governments in the Middle East; specifically Iran. Meanwhile, the historically anti-imperialist nation of Iran was under the control of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and that guy fucking hated the west. This animosity between the two nations played out in 1996, but instead of on a battlefield, the tensions boiled over on a wrestling mat. The two competitors entered the match with the weight of national pride resting firmly on their shoulders; moreover, the match itself went on to exemplify the global narratives held at the time by the United States and Iran.
For many Americans, Iran easily filled the antagonistic void left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The two nations already had a history of disliking each other. One of the first major hostilities between the US and Iran began when 66 Americans were taken hostage while working in the American embassy in Tehran. Additionally, Iran also backed Hezbollah, a terrorist group responsible for airliner hijackings, kidnappings, and attacks on the US and its allies. Furthermore, the rise of jihadist groups in the region only fueled American bitterness for the Middle East as a whole. On television, the Iron Sheik, with his Iranian flag in hand, was the most hated heel in the World Wrestling Federation. Also, in the box office hit “True Lies,” Arnold Schwarzenegger shot Islamic nationalists at helicopters to blow them up. American cynicism of the Middle East peaked during the Iraq War in 1991, and resurged after the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. Though Iran was not involved in either the Iraq War or the WTC bombing, by the mid 90’s Americans began seeing the whole Middle East region as the new “Evil Empire.”
On the other hand, Iranian animosity towards the US began in 1953 when a CIA backed coup overthrew the democratically elected Mohhammed Mosaddeq; to reinstate the more western friendly yet highly disliked Shah. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979 overthrew the Shah, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came into power riding a wave of resentment towards the United States. The resentment grew stronger when the US gave Saddam Hussein weapons and cash during the Iran-Iraq war. Moreover, hatred of the US reach an all-time high in 1988 when the United States shot down a passenger airliner flying out of Iran. Needless to say, this act only further infuriated the Iranian people. In fact, the Persians were so pissed that they even ran a postage stamp depicting the American carrier shooting down Iran Air Flight 655. Even when the US invaded Iraq (Iran’s regional rival) during the Gulf War, Iran’s disdain for the US led them to offer humanitarian aid to the Iraqis.
Thus, going into the 1996 Olympics finals, both Kurt Angle and Abbas Jadidi must have been aware of the political tension between their respective nations. How much that pressure served to motivate each man is arguable. After all, who is to say either man would have wrestled any easier if they had been facing a Japanese wrestler, or an Italian, or any other opponent without the added political enmity. What is undeniable is the atmosphere in that arena. The American and Iranian fans in the stands felt the heat of political rivalry. The energy in the crowd is evident when watching the walk-ins. Angle entered first, eagerly he ran towards the mats and leapt onto the platform ready to go. Then from the other side of the arena, Jadidi calmly approached the mat amidst chants of, “USA, USA, USA,” seemingly dismissing the crowd.
The match started and Angle came out aggressive, but it was Jadidi who scored the first point with a picturesque leg lace. Once back on their feet, Jadidi looked to widen his lead with a takedown only to be reversed by Angle thereby bringing the match to a tie. As time ran down, Jadidi become the aggressor and nearly scored a throw to win the match. Jadidi’s aggression was rewarded and Angle was put down. Jadidi went right to work for a chance to score using his trusty leg lace. Unfortunately for him, Angle’s will proved too strong and despite the best attempts from Jadidi, Angle survived the onslaught. Suddenly, with only 30 seconds left, Angle shot a low single and put Jadidi on his butt. Driving with every ounce of strength he had left after 7½ grueling minutes, Angle tried to score, but Jadidi refused to wilt. In the end, the match ended in a tie, and the outcome was left in the hands of the judges.
As the referees deliberated, the American anxiously waited, hopeful that his hard work was enough to sway the judges; while Jadidi hovered over the referees vigilant of a system he did not trust. Finally, the announcement was made and Kurt Angle got the gold leaving Jadidi in disbelief. Suddenly the theme from Rocky started playing, barely audible over the roaring Atlanta crowd. Angle ran laps around the arena with the Stars and Stripes draped across his back, while Jadidi was left dumbfounded. Futilely trying to change the minds of the officials.
In the end, the match only served to reaffirm already existing narratives in each country. For Jadidi, the ’96 Olympics only reaffirmed the already existing belief that playing by western rules was pointless. The system was rigged. After the games he said, “I'm upset because they took what was mine.” Jadidi continued, “I am respectfully asking the press of the United States and the wrestling federation to hear my protest and give me what is truly mine.'' For Angle, the win confirmed the American adage that hard work pays off, and the American spirit, despite all odds (Angle had a broken neck and had his coach murdered before his Olympic run), can persevere past anything.
The competitors personified the national pride of their respective countries and played out the political tensions that existed between the US and Iran. But as spectators, we will never know just how much Angle and Jadidi saw this match as a chance to represent their country against its political enemy. Angle eventually seized the magic surrounding that match to start a successful career as a professional wrestler. As for Jadidi, even after disputing the decision, he made it a point to assure everyone his ire lied with the officials and not the American people. Regardless of whether or not the two men bought into the narrative surrounding their match, it was a moment where history and martial arts collided to create an almost palpable tension in the arena. Whether they knew the significance of that match or not does not matter. It was more than just an Olympic final; to the fans it was a culmination of the political, historical, and cultural tensions between two rival nations, but though the fans projected this tension onto the wrestlers, Angle and Jadidi just wrestled.