Travel ban shrinks pool for Capital Region wrestling tournament

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Producing an international camp of top-notch high school wrestlers has become a more taxing endeavor in light of tougher U.S. security measures concerning travelers from some Muslim-majority nations.

That’s why Frank Popolizio Jr. ended up awake all night April 11, feeling like he was young again and frantically trying to make weight. He anxiously awaited final word on a contingent from Kazakhstan trying to get to his Journeymen World Classic, an annual event that draws youth participants from across the globe.

Sports often transcend politics, but wrestling includes many major world players from the Middle East, making traveling to tournaments inseparable from political realities. Prospective participants in this weekend’s tournament at Union College faced great travel scrutiny and, some cases, denial.

Kazakhstan gained approval, but Iraq was turned down, Popolizio said. So were several African nations, along with Kyrgyzstan.

The most eye-opening travel takedown was of four representatives from Greece, who flew April 16 to Istanbul, Turkey, only to be denied seats on a Turkish Airlines connection bound for New York City.

The hang-up apparently was some of the group’s relatively recent participation at a tournament in Iran — a country among the seven on the no-travel policy to America. There was enough cloudiness about visas and intentions to deny the group entry.

“I didn’t think that far outside the box for that one,” Popolizio said. “But people go to Iran to compete. They are among the best. Thirteen months ago, I never once thought about it. But as we got closer, it became more of a reality that current policy was going to impact participation. Then we had to adjust.”

Christakis Alexandridis, who brought Russians to the week-long clinic last year, followed the Greek development — he has lived there since 1993 — from his workplace in Russia.

Alexandridis, called by some the “King of Wrestling” for his experience and vast network, sees a broader concern: Youth, traveling for the sake of competition and chances to broaden their horizons, are being restricted on travel.

“In my opinion, recent developments in the Middle East, without doubt, affect the attitude towards Iran. Unfortunately, sports suffer from this,” Alexandridis said in a series of email exchanges.

He faults the airline for not allowing the group — one that included a second-place winner from a major international event in 2016 — to continue traveling.

He points out the Greek group only bought tickets through Istanbul because there were no direct flights available from Athens to New York City.

What they’re missing here is a group of 35 international visitors, including Italy (the only returner from last year), Canada, France, Austria, Bolivia, New Zealand and Kazakhstan.

The event includes a host of local standouts, and there will be some weekend world-caliber New Yorkers, such as Yianni Diakomihalis and Vito Arujau, along with Kurt McHenry (Virginia) and Jacob Warner (Illinois).

From the bleachers at Shenendehowa High during a training session, Popolizio still marvels at how everything turned out — especially noting the arrival of Kazakhstan’s group — and all that went into getting it approved.

Calls. Emails. Official letterheads delegating official travel parties. Contact was also made to the United States Olympic Committee and U.S. State Department — efforts that weren’t needed last year.

Popolizio even went to State Sen. Jim Tedisco of Glenville, whose staff led him to U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko as they tried to leave no stone unturned leading up to the round-robin tournament set for all day Saturday and Sunday. (The staffs of both politicians declined comment.)

The training camp started Monday. Popolizio and other staffers have been marveling at the skill levels and feats of strength.

New Zealanders Brahm Richards and Matthew Oxenham took about 20 hours to get from Auckland, arriving Monday night. But they were giddily sparring through the jet lag the next afternoon.

“There are some real top dogs here,” Richards said.

There has been a lot of hand-gesturing on the mats to fight through communication gaps. One big help has been Niskayuna’s Peter Meshkov, who speaks Russian and can interpret for the Kazaks.

Shenendehowa standout Kiernan Shanahan laughed at himself, however, for thinking there would be issues with the New Zealand duo.

“I said my name, and was trying to get them to say theirs,” Shanahan said, shaking his head and stifling a laugh. “They spoke English, of course.”

Shanahan, a state runner-up in February, was so beat up from a few days of practice that he wasn’t planning on taking the Wednesday tour bus to New York City.

Notably, Popolizio will have the whole group over to his Clifton Park ranch Sunday after the competition is over. He proudly declares the worldly guests will get a taste of loud country music.

Popolizio has also been tickled by a couple of photo opps taken Wednesday afternoon in New York City. There was the Kazaks holding up their nation’s flag, with an American flag in the background. In another photo, the group of wrestlers stood in front of Trump Tower.

jfranchuk@timesunion.com

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