Iranwire – A statue in honor of legendary Iranian wrestler Gholamreza Takhti were unveiled on Tuesday of June 22, 2021 by the National Olympic Committee. It immediately became the subject of a critical report by the Revolutionary Guards-aligned Fars News Agency.
In the report, Fars criticized Reza Saleh Amiri, a former intelligence official who became president of the National Olympic Committee during Hassan Rouhani’s second tenure, for what at first glance seemed the most innocuous of offenses: the depiction of Takhti wearing a tie.
This was the latest shot above the bows in a culture war that has been going on for decades. Since its foundation the Islamic Republic has sought to appropriate Gholamreza Takhti’s image, biography and achievements to its own ends. So much so that apparently, even a tie worn by the late, great hero of Iranian sportsmanship cannot go uncontested.
On the evening of September 1, 1962, a deadly earthquake struck the city of Buin Zahra in Iran’s Qazvin province. The city and all the surrounding villages were reduced to rubble, with at least 12,000 people killed, more than 50,000 injured and tens of thousands of households made homeless overnight.
Two days after the quake, three Iranian wrestling champions spontaneously mobilized to collect donations for the disaster relief efforts. These were Gholamreza Takhti, who was then 32 years old, Esmaeil Rezaei, and Hassan Shamshiri.
The latter, Hassan Shamshiri, was a member of the National Front of Iran: a party founded in 1949 by Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, who had been prime minister of Iran before the coup of 1953. As a famous traditional wrestler, Shamshiri’s patronage of the nationalist party had in turn attracted his close friend, Takhti, to join the rank as well.
Together, the three sportsmen created a symbolic initiative to raise funds for the Buin Zahra quake victims. Esmail Rezaei suggested publicizing it with a caravan in the city’s Molavi Street and Barforosh Square, in the presence of local athletes. Hassan Shamshiri suggested a convoy be brought across from Sabzeh Maidan Square in Tehran. But Gholamreza Takhti opposed both initiatives, saying people in the south of the city were already caught up in the efforts and they should instead approach wealthy groups in the capital. For this reason, he himself ended up on the forefront of a parade from Tehran’s Pahlavi (now Valiasr) Junction down toward the south.
In the end, the humanitarian drive was recorded in the history books under Takhti’s name. No-one recalls the names of the 20 athletes from Qazvin who walked behind, nor the trainees and champions of the Tehran Zourkhaneh (a traditional gymnasium) who were inside the caravan. Even the most famous cleric of the day, Ziaeddin Haj Sayyed Javadi, who accompanied the caravan all the way, has since been consigned to obscurity.
But ever since that day, Gholamreza Takhti became a symbol of popularity, heroism and bravery in the Iranian national memory. Fully aware of his iconic status, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution members of the fledgling Islamic Republic tried to portray Takhti’s eventual suicide in 1968 as a government-sponsored assassination.
This was just one early sign of a decades-long state-sponsored program of appropriation. Back in 1978, long before he became Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, a young Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – who did not have the slightest interest in sports – gave a fiery speech at the Saadabad Stadium in Mashhad against the Shah’s government, in which he promised to change the name of the stadium to Takhti. Today, both this Pahlavi-era building and the former Farah Stadium in Tehran bear the name of Takhti.
The irony is that, had Takhti not ended his own life, he probably would have ended up a political prisoner of the Islamic Republic like other National Front members. Other sportsmen such as Habib Khabiri, the captain of the national youth football team and a member of the MKO, was arrested after the revolution in 1982 and executed in Evin Prison in 1984. Houshang Montazer Al-Mahdi, a gold medalist in the national wrestling team, was hanged for political reasons in September 1981.
The National Front did not confront the Islamic Republic as fiercely as the Mojahedin in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, but its leaders were nonetheless despised by the new incumbents. The official website of Ruhollah Khomeini is littered with such statements as “Imam Regrets the Positions of the National Front”, ” The National Front’s Suspected Attempt to Overthrow the Revolution” and even “National Front Suspected of Assassinating the Elders of the Revolution”. In the end, many of the group’s most senior members were assassinated by the Islamic Republic, including leader Shapour Bakhtiar in August 1991.
In a part of its report on the attack on Reza Salehi Amiri, Fars News Agency considered Gholamreza Takhti as a person from the hearts of the people who did not wear a tie. But what the Revolutionary Guards media did not mention was Gholamreza Takhti’s constant and emotional relationship with nationalist parties or personalities; what has disappeared today in the system of the Islamic Republic.
In its histrionic attack on the National Olympic Committee – and specifically, on a member of Iran’s own security establishment – for depicting Takhti wearing a tie, Fars News Agency asked: “Did Takhti, who was a popular figure and always behind the deprived classes, really establish this image of himself?”.
The answer was yes; Takhti was photographed wearing a tie on several occasions throughout the course of his legendary career. Had he not ended his own life before the Islamic Revolution, the final thing he wore around his neck might have been a noose.