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Once in Venezuela, other teams were put up in nice hotels, but the Iranian team, at the insistence of its country's officials, was forced to stay in military barracks. Abedi was in a room with his brother's best friend, Asgari.
Quietly in the showers or in private moments between matches, Abedi began sharing his intentions with a few teammates. Two other wrestlers, both named Abbas, confirmed that they, too, would not return.
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Abedi didn't know whether to speak with Asgari, who was with the Revolutionary Guard. He knew Asgari's family was loyal to Khomeini.
Secretly, Asgari had been hatching his own plan. He hadn't considered defecting until seeing the life he was missing beyond Iran. "When we got there, I saw those naked girls on the beach, and something clicked in my brain," he says, laughing over the phone from Nicaragua, where he has lived since 2002. "Then Reza came and told me he was leaving. When he told me, I freaked out; I thought he was reading my mind."
Knowing nothing more than a few numbers in English, Abedi started talking with members of the American team, using one of his teammates as a translator. They agreed to help the four Iranians.
Abedi remembers the awards ceremony, the gold medal around his neck, his gaze locked on the Iranian flag and tears in his eyes.
After nightfall, Abedi wrapped his medal in a single set of clothes and dropped the bundle, along with a pair of shoes, out the barred window of his room on the fourth floor. Asgari, who won silver in the 149-pound freestyle division, did the same, tucking his medal into his wallet.
Wearing only their underwear, Abedi and Asgari approached the guard at the stairs and said they were going down to the kitchen. The guard let them go.
Once downstairs, they snuck out into the warm night. They found their clothes and made their way to the American team bus. They waited for the two other wrestlers, and then the four lay on the floor in the back of the bus. Abedi remembers those several tense minutes as the bus drove toward the gate. "I just closed my eyes and asked God to get us out," he says.
The guard at the gate waved the bus through.
* * *
For the next six months, the men managed to set up a place to stay, courtesy of an Iranian businessman, and then a Japanese expatriate. Some nights, when the locals weren't around to feed them, they would search through trashcans outside restaurants.
"We couldn't speak the language, we had no money, and we had no real place to stay," Asgari recalls. "We were surviving day by day, night by night."
In December 1982, Abedi, Asgari and the heavyweight Abbas turned themselves in to the Iranian embassy, claiming they were "young and stupid" and that they made a mistake. The other Abbas decided to stay in Venezuela.
"I knew they would never let us just take back what we had done," Asgari recalls. "We knew there would be a public execution. We learned later that was exactly what they had planned—they were going to prosecute us and hang us in the plaza in Tehran. They announced that on TV; my mother saw that. They were going to use us to teach a lesson to others. We were the first [athletes] in the history of our country to defect."
That day, Abedi was able to call his family in Iran through the help of a friend he'd made. When he heard his mother's voice on the other end, he was overrun with emotion. "I got choked up; I couldn't find words," he recalls. Even today, when he talks about his mother, Abedi stumbles over his words. After he defected, he never saw his mother again; she died in the winter of 1986.
Before boarding the flight, Abedi found a can opener and hid it in his bag. They knew there was not a direct flight from Venezuela to Iran; the only hope would be to escape during the layover in Madrid. Abedi intended to use the can opener as a weapon—either to defend himself or to slit his wrists.
The flight made an unexpected stop in the Canary Islands, and then continued on to Madrid. The delay was a twist of good fortune: The plane was redirected to a national terminal instead of the international terminal, where Iranian officials were waiting. Before disembarking, the wrestlers agreed to leave the plane separately to increase the chance of evading whoever was waiting.
Abedi went first, keeping his head low, his eyes constantly scanning the crowd. He made his way to a nearby restroom. One by one, the three wrestlers appeared there. No one was waiting. Abbas threw up in one of the toilets. "It was a bad feeling," Abedi says. "We knew that if we got on that plane, we were dead."
Years later, Asgari learned that the connecting Iran Air flight they were expected to be on was delayed for hours, while officials searched the airport for the men. Eventually, the flight was canceled.
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