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Wrestler Jordan Burroughs: World Cup event in Iran also about diplomacy

There is no place five-time world champion Jordan Burroughs enjoys competing more than wrestling-crazed Iran. The passion of the fans and level of competition is unmatched anywhere in the world. So you can imagine his concern this weekend when the Iranian Foreign Ministry responded to Donald Trump's immigration ban by saying it would not allow to Americans to enter Iran indefinitely.

Burroughs and a handful of other Americans are scheduled to leave Feb. 8 for a World Cup tournament in Kermanshah, Iran.

"All of the sudden it became this overnight thing," Burroughs said. "Here is this country that has been so instrumental to the culture and sport of wrestling. They are the greatest fans in the world. You just hope because of politics they don't say, 'Sorry, but this time the show is going to go on without you.'"

At least for now, that doesn't appear to be the case. Travel arrangements have already been booked and the visa and qualification process is complete, Burroughs said. On Monday, USA Wrestling president Rich Bender assured them the trip would happen as planned, the 16th time U.S. wrestlers will compete in Iran since 1998, when the U.S. freestyle team was the first American sports team to do so.

"This tour continues a long history of goodwill and cooperation between the United States and Iran through wrestling, which is an impressive example of diplomacy between the people of these nations through sport," Bender said in a statement. "This is an important international competition, and we look forward to competing against the World's best wrestling teams."

The tournament is of heightened importance to Burroughs, the big gold-medal favorite who disappointed last summer in Rio when he failed to medal. The World Cup will mark Burroughs' first major international tournament since the Olympics. Though he admitted there could be added anxiety in Iran given the current political climate, he reiterated Bender's suggestion that the visit is as much about diplomacy as it is winning.

"Sports is one of the few institutions that transcends race, religion, culture and government," Burroughs said. "For me, making America great again starts internally with how you deal with the people around you. At the same time, of course you think, 'what if they want to retaliate? Here's a plane with 25 Americans landing in Tehran. That's a scary place to be. [President Trump] doesn't have to be there. He's making these decisions from his office while we will be in an arena with 13,000 Iranian fans. But you just try to be as diplomatic and respectful as possible regardless of what you believe or our government's decisions. You try to show that it's character that matters most."

The tournament is scheduled for Feb. 16 and 17. The decision for the U.S. to compete in Iran isn't entirely a surprise. During the Cold War, the U.S. competed regularly in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and those teams competed stateside. And since the Cuban revolution, U.S. teams have competed in Cuba on nearly an annual basis.

In Iran, Burroughs will be part of a U.S. delegation that will feature 13 athletes, two coaches, a referee, a medical staff member and a videographer, plus other official delegates. Burroughs said the passion for wrestling is so high in Iran that he has more Instagram followers from Tehran than any other city in the world. He anticipates security will be similar to previous tournaments in Iran, where the U.S. wrestlers are not allowed to leave the team hotel and receive a police escort to and from the arena.

"You just try to maintain your focus," he said. "When we arrived in 2013, it wasn't a great time between our governments either. We met the president of Iran and it was great. It really said a lot for sport that we were able to go over there and compete even though our governments are at odds. Hopefully this time will share that same message. And win."