City could prove it's right for Olympics by backing wrestling's visit in May

April 22, 2001|By GREGORY KANE

SO BALTIMORE thinks it has the juice, the muscle, the moxie to pull off having the 2012 Olympic Games in the Baltimore-Washington area, eh? We have a chance to prove it, and, if preliminary ticket sales and corporate sponsorship are any indication, we're going to blow it.

An event of Olympic magnitude is scheduled for this city on the first weekend of next month, but you probably don't know it. The mayor hasn't whooped it up - but he should, because if Baltimore pulled this off, we would be a shoo-in for the 2012 Olympic Games.

Corporate sponsorship for this event, which will feature world-class athletes from the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Uzbekistan, is virtually nonexistent, according to Alan Gebhart, who is sponsoring it.

On Saturday, May 5, and Sunday, May 6, Baltimore will play host to the Wrestling World Cup in the Baltimore Arena.

"There are three major amateur wrestling events," Gebhart said last week. "The Olympics, the World Championships and the World Cup." The Olympics are held every four years, the World Championships in non-Olympic years. Only one of the three events is held every year, and that's the World Cup.

How does the World Cup differ from the other two? The Olympics and World Championships are tournaments, which focus on individual achievement and crown world and Olympic champions. The World Cup is dual meet competition with a round-robin format. The team winning the most dual meets is crowned champion.

Last year, at George Mason University's Patriot Center in Virginia, the United States finished first in World Cup competition. Russia was second, and Iran was third. All three teams will be in Baltimore next month, and all will have something to prove. Russia won four Olympic gold medals in 2000, the U.S. none. For American amateur wrestling fans, May 5-6 will be more than about just the World Cup. It will be payback time.

For Iranians in the Baltimore-Washington area (the second- largest Iranian-American community in the country, Gebhart says), the event will be another chance to display their fanatical devotion to wrestling.

"Iranian fans make American fans look like pussycats," Gebhart said. "They're very knowledgeable about the sport, and they make a lot of noise." Two Iranian-Americans are on the local organizing committee that brought the World Cup to Baltimore. One is Dr. Mohammed Yousefi, a Maryland chiropractor who is chairman of the Iranian-American group House of Iran. The other is Eisa Momeni, a member of Iran's 1996 Olympic team who has since immigrated to the United States. Momeni is an assistant wrestling coach at Archbishop Curley High School, where Gebhart is the head coach.

Gebhart and the Baltimore Committee for International Wrestling organized the 2000 World Cup at George Mason University. This year marks the first time the event will be held in Baltimore. The World Cup started in 1973. Seventeen of the first 19 events were held in Toledo, Ohio. Las Palmas in the Canary Islands and Ulan Bator in Mongolia were the other two sites.

In the last nine years, the World Cup has moved around a bit - to cities including Moscow, Tehran, Spokane, Wash., Chattanooga, Tenn., and Stillwater, Okla. Wrestling fans in the Baltimore-Washington area won't have to go to one of those places next month to see the best amateur grapplers. They'll just have to go to the Arena. It's also an opportunity for area coaches to take their wrestlers to see world-class wrestling.

"If we can't take them to the Olympics, we can bring Olympic wrestling to them," Gebhart said. And what wrestling it will be. One of the marquee match-ups features Iran's Ali Reza Dabier - who manhandled Terry Brands, a tough American Olympian, on his way to a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics - against Cary Kolat. Kolat won the 2000 World Cup by mauling his competitors. Dabier will move up a weight class, to 63 kilograms - that's 138 pounds plus some ounces - to wrestle Kolat. That match alone will be worth the price of the ticket.

An event of this magnitude should sell out the Baltimore Arena, but Gebhart says that so far, ticket sales have been slow. Corporate sponsors have not been forthcoming.

"Nobody, apparently, wants anything to do with amateur wrestling," Gebhart lamented. Mayor Martin O'Malley sent a letter to Gebhart expressing hope that Gebhart would select Baltimore as the site of the 2001 Wrestling World Cup. But O'Malley should really whoop up this event the way he rooted for the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL playoffs. Tony White, a mayoral spokesman, said the mayor may be available for a future interview regarding the World Cup.

So it's up to Baltimore's corporate community and citizens. Want to see the Olympic Games here in 2012? Prove it by filling the Baltimore Arena come May 5-6.

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