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A Far Less Perilous Endgame

If only wars could be fought on playing fields, not battlefields

I like this conversation better. I have watched too many retired colonels on my television set in recent weeks, shivered too many shivers as deadlines have been issued and bombs have been dropped. I am happy to hear how Matt Ghaffari would stick his thumb into an Iraqi's eye.

"You'd really do that?" I ask.

"Yes," Ghaffari says. "I would get inside. I would pull his beard. I would put a thumb into his eye. Anything. That is how these things go. What determines the winner usually is who can stand the most pain. The Iraqi would do the same to me."

The simple battle is easier to understand. I like to have my geopolitical conflicts distilled to human terms. The tools of civilization have to be taken away to talk about a more civilized way of settling differences.

"You have fought an Iraqi?" I ask.

"The last time was in 1989, in Turkey," Ghaffari says. "I pinned him. I dominated him. He tried to be real physical with me, but his bark was worse than his bite. I turned him and put him down. He could have been tougher. Thirty seconds and I could feel he wanted to quit. He was looking for a way to get out of there gracefully."

There are not a lot of sports in which Iraq has competed against the U.S. Of them, wrestling is easily the most intimate. Opponents breathe and grunt and have body odor. Ghaffari is 29 years old. He is 6'4" and weighs 280 pounds, a heavyweight. He is America's top prospect for a medal in Greco-Roman wrestling at the Barcelona Olympics next year. He lives in Chandler, Ariz., and he has quit his job with a car rental agency to train full-time for his shot at the Games. He was born in Teheran, Iran, but came to the U.S. at age 14 and is a naturalized American citizen. He went to high school in Paramus, N.J.

"Have you also wrestled against an Iranian?" I ask.

"Many times," he says. "I wrestled against Iranians who came to the mat with pictures of the Ayatollah Khomeini. I have heard them shout, in Farsi, 'Death to Americans!' All of that stuff. I understand the language, so I know what they're saying. There are many countries in the world, especially in the Middle East, who dress us in a black hat. They just don't know us. They think we're just rock and rollers. They think everyone drives a Cadillac and shoots guns all the time. They think we have life too easy. They don't know."

He talks about wrestling against Soviets and Cubans and Bulgarians, about how wrestling against someone who holds to a different ideology puts a different light in your eye when you go into competition. The match becomes more basic. Meaner. Ghaffari can respond to the meanness. That is part of the game, and he will play it. He says he wants to stand on a platform and see the American flag raised to the ceiling while The Star-Spangled Banner is played.

"I was in a tournament in Cuba in mid-February," he says. "We didn't do well. Only two of us made the finals, my roommate and me. He lost. I was in the last match of the day. I told him that I was going out there to raise the flag, that it had to be raised at least once. I won. That was the best feeling, standing there. Having everyone else stand, too. In Cuba."

He says the mat is where life has the fewest complications these days. He is olive-skinned and has a Middle Eastern name and is a Shiite Muslim. People sometimes forget that he's an American too. Ghaffari finds that his bags are checked and rechecked at the airport as if he, more than any of the other passengers, might be a terrorist. He says his mosque in Tempe has been visited by the FBI. He says he has heard friends and teammates say things about "those people" as if he weren't in the room. When he has been noticed, the friends have added, "but, of course, present company excluded." Of course.

"It was bad when I was in college," he says. "The Iran hostage situation was going on, and people tried to pick fights with me. Our coach added an o to the end of my name when we wrestled at other schools. 'Ghaffario.' He made me Italian. I would say to people, 'Do you know the words to the Pledge of Allegiance? Do you know all the words to the national anthem? I do.' All you can do in that situation is channel your hostility into your sport. That's what I've done. I know that when I'm on that victory stand, I'm as American as apple pie."

I ask where he was on Jan. 16 when the Gulf war began. He says he was training with the national team in Colorado Springs. His boom box for once was turned to news instead of music. The wrestlers sat, stunned at what they were hearing. Their workouts suddenly seemed useless. Work toward the Olympics? Why? Will there even be an Olympics? Ghaffari describes the feeling as "cold." Everyone felt cold.

"I hope the whole thing ends soon," he says. "I hope everything's finished, and I hope they hold the Olympics."

I say I hope the same thing. I say it would be ironic if he wound up on a mat in Barcelona opposite a big man from Baghdad. He says Iraq does not have the greatest wrestlers in the world, so he would not mind. He would take his chances.

"What would you try to do?" I ask.

"I'd try to hurt him, and he would try to hurt me," Ghaffari says. "That's the game. If I get a chance to fall on him, I'm going to fall on him real hard. If I can pick him up, a 280-pound man over my head, I'm going to throw him down. He's going to do the same to me."

That's the game. It was the best discussion of international diplomacy I'd heard in a long while.