In the ancient Olympic sport of Greco-Roman wrestling, Iran had been something of a novice until this week.
Hamid Mohammad Soryan Reihanpour and Omid Noroozi, both 26, changed that the past two days by winning the country’s first gold medals in the discipline at the London Games, capturing weight classes dominated by Russians in 2008.
Before London, Iran had won 30 medals in freestyle wrestling since the 1948 Olympics compared with two in Greco- Roman. Mohammad Bana, coach of both wrestlers, spent the last “six or seven” years studying strategy in the older style that dates back to 708 B.C., Noroozi said.
“This is down to him,” Noroozi said through a translator after throwing Bana onto the mat to celebrate his victory in the 60-kilogram category. “I want to thank him so much.”
Noroozi defeated Georgia’s Revaz Lashkhi in the gold-medal bout at London’s ExCel arena yesterday, sparking celebrations among dozens of expatriate Iranians. A day earlier, Soryan Reihanpour beat Azerbaijan’s Rovshan Bayramov to win the 55- kilogram event.
Another Iranian, Saeid Mourad Abdvali, is competing in Greco-Roman wrestling at 66 kilograms today. He may face France’s defending champion Steeve Guenot in the quarterfinals.
Unlike in freestyle wrestling, Greco-Roman wrestlers can’t hold each other below the waist. The ancient art was incorporated into the modern Olympics in 1896 because organizers considered it historically significant.
Freestyle wrestling, also part of the London Games, has its roots in fairground shows in the U.S. and U.K., according to the International Olympic Committee website.
The older style was part of the games in Olympia, Greece, as early as 708 B.C., when wrestlers in loincloths would coat themselves in olive oil and grapple against a backdrop of temples and statues, according to the 2011 book “Power Games: Ritual and Rivalry at the Ancient Greek Olympics,” by David Stuttard.
At the ExCel arena, a conference center near London City Airport, wrestlers wear a one-piece spandex body suit and battle in front of 10,000 spectators on a circular yellow mat that resembles a helicopter landing pad. Pop music blares when the wrestlers enter the ring.
Noroozi defended his position on the ground as Lashkhi sought to flip him over on his back in the first two-minute round. He then forced his opponent out of the circle to help secure victory in the second period.
“I had to work very hard to win,” said Noroozi, whose shoulder was bandaged from an earlier injury.
Iran has a history of wrestling dating back as long as a thousand years and has had recent success in Greco-Roman wrestling in world championships, Iran’s Sports Minister Mohammad Abbasi said in an interview. Noroozi is a defending world champion and Soryan Reihanpour has won five world titles. Abdvali is undefeated the past 20 months.
“Soccer is more popular in Iran, but culturally wrestling is more important,” Abbasi said through a translator. “We have many wrestling legends in Iranian history.”
Iranians are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the sport, according to Joe Warren, a former Greco-Roman wrestler who competed in a competition in Iran in 2002. He is in London to train with the U.S. team.
Most of the Iranians who watched Noroozi’s match at the arena are U.K. based, according to one of the group, Afshin Biniaz, a 36-year-old engineering professor.
They made their presence felt and whooped and clamored to congratulate Noroozi following his win, which gave Iran its fourth medal of the London Games after a silver and bronze in weightlifting.
“I could hear the noise even before I came into the arena,” Noroozi said. “It felt like I was at home.”
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