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Rio de Janeiro • The match hadn't even started, but fans in the two packed sections at Carioca Arena 2 were already energized as their wrestler readied himself to step on the mat.
When the Iranian fans weren't animatedly hoisting flags as high as they could, they overwhelmed the wrestling venue with their chants. The sections played off one another: a kazoolike horn sounded six straight times before one side would scream "Iran!" The horn then blared five more times with the identical cheer from the other side.
This continued on long after Ghasem Rezaei, gold medalist from the 2012 London Games, tangled with China's Di Xiao. It continued throughout the ensuing six-minute match that Rezaei won en route to an eventual bronze medal Tuesday at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Seated in the front row across the arena was a man with a perfect view. Khosrow Semnani heard the chants. He saw the red, white and green flags waved in celebration of Iran's beloved Olympic champ. He grabbed onto the railing as Rezaei earned point after point. Once the 7-0 win over Xiao was final and Rezaei's right hand was raised by the referee, Semnani stood and clapped.
The horn kept on and so did the chants.
In Iran, wrestling is king. A source of national pride, it is Iran's most productive Olympic sport. Since the Atlanta Games in 1996, Iran has won at least one gold medal in wrestling every Olympics. This week, Semnani has that front-row seat he'll never forget. Because three years ago, the Iranian-born, Salt Lake City businessman and philanthropist didn't know if the sport he grew up watching would have its traditional stage beyond Brazil.
In 2013, the International Olympic Committee briefly axed wrestling from its long-term docket, causing an uproar worldwide. Governing bodies in the United States, Iran, Russia and several other countries openly opposed the decision. When Semnani heard the news, he went to work with the full support of family members still living in Iran.
"I really thought that I should get involved," he said. "There were no other options."
Semnani lobbied Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch to help support a resolution. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert was one of 33 governors across the U.S. who signed a letter to the IOC asking the organization to reverse the decision.
Semnani orchestrated fundraisers and events to boost awareness for wrestling in the hopes that after Rio, there would be a future. Wrestling was eventually reintroduced for the 2020 Games in Tokyo and the 2024 Games still to be determined.
"It's part of our culture and we all talk about it," said Semnani, who moved to Utah from Iran in 1968. "It's something we take pride in. It's more than sport. It's a part of the heritage."
With wrestling's spot on the international stage sorted out, the Utahn is showcasing his admiration for the sport in benevolent fashion. Semnani will tack on the bonuses earned by Iranian and American wrestlers in Brazil. USA Wrestling pays out bonuses of $250,000 for a gold-medal winner, $50,000 for a silver-medal winner and $25,000 for a bronze-medal winner.
The Semnani Foundation will contribute in the amount of $20,000 for winners of gold, $10,000 for silver and $5,000 for bronze to all wrestlers competing in the Greco-Roman, freestyle and women's wrestling events this week.
"When you have a love, you have a passion for something, you like to invest in it," he said. "You can't just walk away from it. It's a lot of money, yes, but at the same time, there's a love for the sport and for what's important to these nations. … I couldn't do one without the other."
In May 2014, members of USA Wrestling traveled to the Iranian capital of Tehran to participate in a tournament. The reception was top-notch. Sold-out arenas got behind some American wrestlers during matches, even chanting "USA!" in support. When the Iranian national team had a competitive tour stateside, making stops in Los Angles, Las Vegas and New York, the wrestlers were a hit among American supporters as well.
Wrestling is "beyond and above all of this political nonsense," Semnani said. "Nations, they always love each other, respect each other it's the political things that get in the way sometimes."
SLC's Olympic wrestling connection
Salt Lake City business man Khosrow Semnani has pledged $20,000 for winners of gold, $10,000 for silver and $5,000 for bronze to all American and Iranian wrestlers competing in the Greco-Roman, freestyle and women's wrestling events this week.