BANDAR ABBAS, Iran — One day, the spectators were shouting obscenities at American wrestler Mo Lawal after he beat his chest tauntingly before tackling his Iranian opponent.
The next day, Friday, they were kissing him as he shimmied to Iranian music and passed out U.S flags after winning a gold medal.
In the southern port of Bandar Abbas, a few miles from passing American warships, rising political tensions between the two countries were put aside this week for sheer enthusiasm over wrestling, a sport Iranians have been passionate about and excelled in for centuries.
There was a glow of friendship between 20 U.S. wrestlers and hundreds of Iranian spectators as the two-day Persian Gulf Cup, also called the Takhti Cup, came to a close.
“It has been great here,” said the executive director of U.S. Wrestling, Rich Bender. “We have been treated with the utmost hospitality.”
“Sport brings people together. It is in keeping with the ideals of the Olympics,” Lawal said in a written answer to questions passed through security guards to him. “The wrestlers are highly skilled and the tournament is very well organized.”
The Americans were under heavy security, escorted by police as they left the venue each day for their hotel, apparently to prevent any attacks on them.
But the only friction was in the vein of sports trash-talking. On Thursday, Lawal, from Colorado Springs, Colo., prompted a volley of insults from the crowd when he beat his chest defiantly before his match against an Iranian — then another when he gave a thumbs-down signal to the crowd after defeating the Iranian.
The fans shouted “bastard!” and even harsher obscenities of the sort common at Iranian sports matches — one reason the country’s Islamic authorities have cited rules barring women from attending.
But all was forgiven Friday when Lawal beat Iranian Amir Abbas Moradi to win the gold for freestyle wrestling — which earns him $3,000. After the victory, he began shaking his shoulders and moving to the beat of traditional Iranian music being performed in the hall.
The crowd cheered and Lawal responded by going up to the stands and handing out U.S. flags. Some spectators kissed him on the cheeks and forehead in a display of affection.
“Americans are good people,” said one spectator, Hossein Rezvani, 24, a clerk. “They should not be judged on what their government does.”
Another, Hadi Shahbazian, said U.S.-Iranian tensions have heightened so much in recent weeks — with the U.N. Security Council imposing sanctions on Iran last month — that he didn’t believe the U.S. wrestlers would come. “I believed it only after I saw them with my own eyes,” he said.
Iran won the annual tournament, collecting six gold medals. The United States won one gold, Lawal’s, and the third participating nation, Turkmenistan, none.
Iranian state television broadcast the matches live — but didn’t show the moments when the fans were kissing Lawal.
The tournament is the first time American wrestlers have come to Iran since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in mid-2005. But it has been clear their presence is not a revival of the “wrestling diplomacy” that his predecessor, pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami, promoted in a bid to improve ties with the United States, Iran’s top enemy.
Under Khatami, U.S. teams participated in Iranian wrestling tournaments from 1998 to 2004, and Iran sent teams to various sports competitions in the United States.
Khatami hoped that increased sports and cultural exchanges would pave the way for warmer relations — along the lines of the U.S. “pingpong diplomacy” with China ahead of President Nixon’s landmark visit to Beijing in 1972. But hard-liners prevented deep political change by the reformists and succeeded in pushing them out of parliament even before term limits forced Khatami to leave office and Ahmadinejad was elected with strong hard-liner support.
Still, some in the crowd in Bandar Abbas hoped wrestling could promote a bond.
Pedram Karimshahi, a 25-year-old student, said the U.S. team enhanced the contest, giving more credibility to what is Iran’s No. 1 event in wrestling.
“Their visit to Iran promotes cultural exchanges between the two nations,” he said.