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Saturday, February 21, 1998 Published at 19:19 GMT

World: Middle East

US wrestlers win hearts and medals

Wrestler Kevin Jackson takes his lap of honour after winning a gold medal for the USA

Pictures of American wrestlers dominated the front pages of Tehran's major newspapers after the extraordinary international wrestling competition there on Saturday.

Wrestlers Kevin Jackson, Zeke Jones, Melvin Douglas, Shawn Charles and John Giura were the first American athletes to compete in Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

They were lauded as sporting heroes by a crowd of 12,000 Iranian fans who shouted for the visitors as much as for the home team.

A lap of honour by the US team, during which local fans stretched over barriers to touch the hands of the visiting wrestlers, set the tone for the evening.

Melvin Douglas won over the crowd by embracing his victorious Iranian opponent Abbas Jadidi after his bout, and was invited to carry a portrait of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the medals ceremony.

He said: "It was emotional carrying the picture. The Iranians wanted me to carry it so I did ... It was a great honour."

Zeke Jones, who took silver after forfeiting his match against an Iranian due to a knee injury, was treated to a standing ovation when he came out of the dressing area twice and waved a small Iranian flag.

"I was trying to show the friendship between American wrestlers and Iranian fans, to show that we come in friendship," he said.

The American participation in the tournament followed a call by Iranian President, Muhammad Khatami, for cultural exchanges with the United States, which broke off relations with Iran nearly 20 years ago.

Iranians swept most of the medals at the four-day tournament, winning six gold medals, three silver and one bronze. The US team won one gold medal and two silver.

The visit has raised comparisons with what become known as ping-pong diplomacy between the United States and China in the 1970s, when American table-tennis players went to China as a prelude to improved relations.

Wrestling in Iran is as revered as table tennis in China.

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