Thursday, August 9, 2012

Post #308 - Games People Play

Iran, a nation of only 74 million people now ranks at least 14th in the medal count in the London 2012 Olympics, with four gold, three silver and one bronze medals. This compares to a medal count of only two in Beijing, down from six in Athens four years earlier.

The Iranian National Olympic Committee has been functioning since 1947, and fifty-four athletes from Iran are participating in more than a dozen different events this year, including karate fighter Nasrin Dousti, who took the gold in the women’s 50kg weight class of the 11th Asian Karatedo Federation (AKF) Senior Championship in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Gold medalists in London so far have included three wrestlers, Hamid Sourian, Omid Norouzi and Ghasem Rezaei, and a weightlifter, Behdad Salimi. The silver medalists were Sajjad Anoushiravani, Navab Nassirshalal (weightlifting) and Ehsan Hadadi (discus). Taking bronze was Kianoush Rostami, another weightlifter.

It was partly because of the place given to these sports in the hearts of Iranians that Olympic medalist Matt Ghaffari (Atlanta 1996) was named to the first advisory board of the National Iranian American Council when it was founded ten years ago. Ghaffari attended high school in Paramus, New Jersey. He also competed in the Summer Olympics in 2000, his third Games, at age thirty-eight.

In addition to these internationally-competed sports, Iran's traditional "zoorkhaneh" ("house of strength") keeps many Iranians in top fitness across the cities and towns of the Middle Eastern country. This is the way I described my first visit to a zoorkhaneh in Isfahan:

"The Zoorkhaneh is an institution dating from the days of Mogul dominance, when preparation for war by the Persians was prohibited. The people found in it a way to retain martial skills, while cloaking the activity in enough artistic and religious traditions that its underlying purpose was obscured. In the form that one sees today, the zoorkhane members carry out a routine of exercises that are introduced and punctuated by prayers, chants or recitations, and accompanied by the beat of drum from their morshed (coach/leader). It is customary for him to ask for a traditional prayer for the Prophet Mohammad and his family. This evening, he asked everyone to pray for the health of the guests from America, and he asked those present to respond so loudly that their voices would be heard in Washington D.C.. The various kinds of apparatus each have their origin in the movements (and muscle groups) needed for archery, swordplay and hand-to-hand combat. Those who excel are known as pahlavans, or champions, and the photos of the current group’s most illustrious predecessors fill the walls of the high-ceilinged practice/performance space.

"At the climax of the evening’s routine, men swung, tossed and juggled long clubs of polished wood that weighed up to nearly 90 pounds each, and twirled like the Sufi mystics called darveesh (the famous “whirling dervish”), until dizzy. This exercise prepared the warriors of old to defend themselves until their last breath against lopsided odds. We could see that even five or ten men would have difficulty subduing a pahlavan wielding two swords and swinging them in a circle with his nimble feet at the vortex."

Max Fisher, in a recent article in Atlantic mentioned: "Centuries before the Islamic Republic or even Islam, Persian athletes fused spirituality and strength training in a practice called Varzesh-e-Bastani, the legacy of which still persists." "Though Western cultures typically treat wrestling as an aggressive, individualistic, and deeply competitive sport, traditional Persian Varzesh-e-Bastani," Fisher says, "emphasizes it as a means of promoting inner strength through outer strength in a process meant to cultivate what we might call chivalry. The ideal practitioner is meant to embody such moral traits as kindness and humility and to defend the community against sinfulness and external threats."

President Khatami, addressing the United Nations
Former Iranian president (1997-2005) Mohammad Khatami had hoped and hinted that wrestling and other sports might provide the kind of opening to citizen diplomacy that table tennis did for China and the United States in a earlier era. Indeed, some exchanges were built around sports, science, environment and other areas of shared interest during the administration of that popular reform-minded president, but everything changed during the Bush II era, and under Khatami's successor, Ahmadinezhad. Khatami never received any official U.S. reaction to his ambitious "Dialogue among Civilizations" initiative, though the United Nations declared 2001 a special year to promote that project.

As we watch the Olympics games, is it not evident that many positive drives and desires are common to all humankind? Don't the Games themselves proclaim the hope that what we share will be able to outlast and overcome the fear that so often animates international relations?

Better by far to pin an opponent and then offer him a hand up, than to bomb his home and occupy his land. Better to lift a ton than to drop tons of armaments on sleeping children or farmers in their fields. Better to play together with passion than to die separately. The real gold we should be seeking is the golden rule.

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