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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 April 2007, 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK
Iranian athletes invited to USA
By Mihir Bose
BBC sports editor in Beijing

US freestyle wrestler Anthony Ramico Blackmon (R) and Iran's Hamid Razani compete during the Iranian Takhti international wrestling tournament in the Gulf port city of Bandar Abbas, 1,300 kms southeast
Iranian wrestlers will be the first to benefit from any new accord
America has made a dramatic attempt to repair its relations with the Middle East by inviting Iranian athletes to train in the United States.

The move was made with the blessing of the US State Department, said the US Olympic Committee's chief of International Relations, Robert Fasulo.

The USOC hopes that repairing relations with Iran will help secure its goal of hosting the 2016 Games.

It hopes a formal sporting treaty with Iran will be signed in Tehran soon.

I just went up to the Iranian Olympic officials, who are academics not politicians, and said let us talk

Bob Fasulo
US Olympic Committee's chief of International Relations
The plan is for wrestlers to become the first Iranian athletes to travel to the US in August, with others - including water polo players, gymnasts and athletes - following.

Fasulo told the BBC that he made the first move at last December's Asian Games in Doha after consulting with the state department, which the gave move its blessing.

"I just went up to the Iranian Olympic officials, who are academics not politicians, and said I am Bob Fasulo, let us talk," he said.

Given the state of diplomatic relations between the two countries, the initiative says a lot about how keen America's sporting leaders are to repair sporting links.

Since Fasulo's first move, American and Iranian officials have been talking at the various sports conferences held around the world, and there have been exchanges of correspondence.

Iranian's burn US and British flags in protest at intervention in the country's nuclear programme
Diplomatic relations between Iran and America are strained
The latest was in Kuwait last week, where the Asians met to decide who should host the 2014 Asian Games.

The athletes who visit the US will train in three centres: California, Colorado, where the USOC has its headquarters, and Lake Placid in New York state, where the Winter Olympic Games were held in 1980.

The American initiative has been welcomed in the Middle East, where the Americans are also reaching out with similar offers to Syria and Lebanon.

Prince Faisal of Jordan - who launched his own "Peace through Sports" programme last week - told me how crowds in Tehran reacted with hysteria when American basketball players once played a game there.

He says it illustrated how sport can help build relations between people even if their political relations are fraught, as is certainly the case between Iran and the US.

The Americans are keen to emphasise that that their motives are altruistic - a desire to be friendly with Iran.

Chicago
The US hopes to host the 2016 Olympics in Chicago
But they are also doing it with one eye on the 2016 Olympics, for which Chicago is expected to be their chosen host city.

The USOC knows that when London won the 2012 Games, New York, which was also in the race, was badly damaged in the eyes of Middle Eastern members of the International Olympic Committee by America's foreign policy and the war in Iraq.

If Chicago is to see off challenges from expected rivals such as Madrid and Rio de Janeiro, America needs to rebuild bridges in the Middle East.



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