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U.S. flag is star at Iran wrestling match

For the first time in more than 18 years, the American flag was displayed with respect rather than rage in Iran Tuesday when a U.S. wrestling team carried the banner onto the mat in the opening ceremony of an international competition.

About 500 Iranian men clapped for the Stars and Stripes, a more enthusiastic response than received by any of the other 17 teams, except that of the host, the Islamic Republic of Iran.The American flag also was on display at the arena, despite warnings by some conservative Iranians that the American banner should not be shown.

Although the Stars and Stripes has been burned many times in Tehran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, it has not been hung ceremonially since Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy in November 1979 and took Americans hostage, and Washington severed diplomatic ties.

Now, the U.S. wrestlers, who begin competing Thursday, have become the most closely watched Americans in Tehran since the last hostages were released in January 1981.

The Americans maintain they are in Iran for sports and not politics.

"Iranian wrestling fans are the greatest in the world," said Zeke Jones of Chandler, Ariz. "We're here to wrestle, not for politics. If there is any political fallout from this, it is not our concern."

Jones and the nine other delegation members, here for the Takhti wrestling tournament, slept late this morning after a taxing flight to Tehran. Later, they limbered up before the opening ceremony at the Azadi Sports Complex.

If all goes well, the American flag likely will be seen again when Iran plays host to the wrestling world championships in the same arena next September.

In large part, the American and other teams have traveled to Iran to prepare for that championship, said team spokesman Mitch Hull.

"We like to be in a situation where there are no surprises," Hull said.