DENVER – The United States has invited potential Olympic athletes from Iran to train in America, though a U.S. regulation requiring foreign visitors to be fingerprinted could scuttle the plan.
The U.S. Olympic Committee and the State Department have joined the national governing bodies of wrestling, weightlifting and canoe and kayaking in welcoming the Iranian athletes to visit and work out at national facilities.
The Iranian government has not yet accepted the invitations because of U.S. regulations, passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, that require many foreigners to be fingerprinted in order to enter the country.
"Iran's Physical Education Organization has agreed to dispatch Iranian teams to the American camps and competitions if the Iranian athletes are not fingerprinted while entering the country," Iranian Olympic Committee secretary general Ali Kaffashian said, according to the Iranian state news agency, IRNA.
The fingerprint issue is a not a new one. It has made it more difficult for the United States to host international events since the new regulations went into effect, and could be a factor in Chicago's bid to host the 2016 Olympics.
The USOC has similar exchange agreements in place with many countries, including China. Leading up to the 2004 Olympics, the U.S. brought Iraqi boxers, wrestlers and archers to the country to train. A similar deal with Iraq could be made in the leadup to the 2008 Beijing Games.
State Department Deputy spokesman Tom Casey confirmed the Iranians have not yet accepted the invitation.
"Our invitation to Iranian Olympic athletes is directed at increasing mutual understanding between the peoples of our two countries," he said.
The USOC has long considered these exchange programs a small way to use sports to improve international relations. The deal with Iran would be viewed as unique and dramatic given the increased tension between the United States and Iran, and the sagging popularity of the United States in the Middle East.
Normally, in these exchange programs, foreign countries send athletes to the United States to train for two to four weeks, then later, the American team sends coaches and technical experts to the partner country to run clinics and offer advice.
In January, the United States sent 20 wrestlers to Iran to participate in the Persian Gulf Cup.
"Our wrestlers were very, very well received," USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel said.
That tournament marked the first time American wrestlers had been to Iran since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005. Under Ahmadinejad's predecessor, pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami, U.S. teams participated in Iranian wrestling tournaments from 1998 to 2004, and Iran frequently sent teams to competitions in the United States.
As significant as the USOC's possible agreement with Iran was its earlier decision to forge a bilateral agreement with China, which has made little secret of its desire to win the medal count at the Beijing Olympics next year.
The USOC met with the Chinese Olympic delegation in February to begin laying the groundwork for their coach and athlete exchanges.
"We absolutely want to succeed in the competitive arena, but we also want to fulfill our responsibility as a member of the international sports community," Seibel said. "That's why exchanges like this are important."