May 20, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) Invited to take part in an exhibition against the U.S. in Times Square, top Cuban wrestlers quickly received approval from their government to make the trip.

Traveling abroad to competitions is nothing new for the country's elite athletes, but now they are hopeful far more opportunities will open up.

In December, the United States and Cuba moved to restore diplomatic relations. The U.S. is expanding economic ties and easing restrictions on travel to Cuba.

Planning for Thursday's event in Times Square started in November, before that announcement. Top American wrestlers have been taking part in exhibitions at New York City landmarks for a half-dozen years to benefit youth program Beat the Streets.

In 2013, the Iranian and Russian teams joined in at Grand Central Terminal, seeking to send a message about the power of the sport when it was in danger of being dropped from the Olympics. Looking ahead to this year's event, organizers decided to pick an opponent closer to home and asked the Cubans to attend.

Thursday's exhibition comes at what the president of Cuba's wrestling federation calls a ''historic moment for our countries.''

''The relationship is being built,'' Eduardo Perez Tellez said through a translator Wednesday.

The relationships are already strong between the countries in wrestling. The Americans have regularly competed in Cuba, and their athletes and coaches have helped the country develop its women's program.

Reineris Salas Perez, one of four world championship medalists competing for Cuba on Thursday, spoke of the challenges the wrestlers face.

''We don't have the opportunities. We don't have the funding,'' he said through a translator.

Perez is hopeful that increased trade and freedom to travel will come in the future and boost Cuba's economy, helping the country's athletes.

For now, though, there has been little noticeable impact from December's announcement.

''It's too early in the conversation for you to see those changes,'' he said.

And changes had already occurred before December as Cuba moved toward restoring diplomatic relations. That was reflected in the government's fast approval of the wrestlers' plans to visit New York, an event that today has great appeal on both sides.

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