In Russia, wrestling as a way out

February 28, 2013

In the Palace of Wrestling, a 17-year-old named Azamat Takhoyev just might be the heir apparent. Self-assured, quietly respectful, he is slight at 128 pounds yet powerfully shouldered. Black curls frame his face, in the way that a Greco-Roman wrestler’s face should be framed.

For him it’s about the dream. Oh, sure, there’s the Olympic dream — what strong young man from the trouble-ridden Caucasus of southern Russia doesn’t dream of a gold medal? And even though the International Olympic Committee wants to throw wrestling on the scrap heap of history, no, that dream doesn’t die because somehow, surely, a way will be found to keep wrestling in the Olympics where it belongs. But that’s not the one that counts.

“Wrestling? It’s very hard to explain,” Takhoyev said one evening in one of the big training halls of the Palace. A soft look came over his face. “I have these dreams in my head when I do it.”

Wrestling, when everything is going right, takes him away to some other place. Right there on the mat, his sweaty opponent filled with desire to dominate him, physically, strength matched to strength, Takhoyev dreams with serene clarity of throws or moves or feints that will enable him to win, and then the dream becomes real.

He grew up in the shadow of the Caucasus Mountains, in a region called North Ossetia, and he thought he wanted to be a soccer player. “But I was told every day: wrestling, wrestling, wrestling,” he said. “And then it sank in.” Since the age of 12, he has lived in Moscow, in a hostel run by the Palace of Wrestling, free of charge, molding the dream.

“You will hear this name,” Vladimir Ostroumov, the solid but diminutive director of what is officially called the Ivan Yarygin Palace of Wrestling, after a famous Soviet grappler, said of Takhoyev.

Ostroumov, whose last name means Sharpbrains, ought to know. Two of the Palace’s graduates won medals in London.

Rumors abounded for several years that wrestling — one of the original Olympic sports — might be in trouble. But when Ostroumov got the news that the IOC wants to scrap it starting in 2020, he had one thought: “a catastrophe.” Without the lure of Olympic participation, his sport would almost certainly wither away.

Wrestling officials from the great powers of the sport — Russia, Iran, the United States, Korea, Turkey and Azerbaijan — are joining together to try to get the decision overturned, and are optimistic. They have already forced out Raphael Martinetti, president of wrestling’s world governing body, FILA. Martinetti resigned Feb. 16, and Ostroumov and his colleagues here take that as a good sign.

Sagid Murtazaliev, a wrestler from Russia’s Dagestan region who won the heavyweight freestyle gold medal at Sydney in 2000, upped the pressure by returning his medal to the IOC in protest.

Rechanneling toughness

The Yarygin Palace, in Moscow’s Lefortovo district, is a six-story monument to the wrestler’s art, built in 2004 with three big training halls, a small training hall, a competition space, a gym, sauna, Turkish bath, acupuncture room and cafeteria. Its Museum of Wrestling dwells reverently on Soviet and Russian Olympic triumphs. And there have been
plenty — 63 gold medals since 1952. The Palace is far and away Russia’s most opulent school
for junior wrestlers, who start there at age 7.

Up to 2,000 boys, and even some girls, train there — and 90 percent of them are from the Caucasus. Russia’s two medal winners from 2012 came to the Palace, like Takhoyev, from North Ossetia, a largely Christian republic just west of Chechnya and scene of the Beslan school massacre of 2004. Another huge contingent of wrestlers hails from Murtazaliev’s homeland: Muslim Dagestan, in the mountains to the east, and plagued by unrest, religious violence and poverty.

Wrestling, for thousands of boys throughout the Caucasus, represents a way out. The Palace hostel is their refuge — from the hard lives they left behind, and from Muscovites’ sharp prejudice against the region and its inhabitants.

“Our contingent is not from the well-to-do,” Ostroumov said. “Hooligans are our kids. We bring them up and distract them from the streets. They train together; they eat together; they spend time together. We develop particular traits: You have to be patient, and you have to work hard.”

Khadzhimurad Magomedov, who knows something about hard work, still goes back to Dagestan to visit his parents, but a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta gave him the freedom to chart a different course through life. Today, he is a coach with the Russian team and is raising a family in Moscow.

“It was the will of Allah,” he
said recently over coffee at the Russian Olympic Committee headquarters. He was 9 when he started training, in the city of Makhachkala. As a wrestler he didn’t need to invest in a racket, pay for time on a special court or rink, or buy an expensive uniform. He wonders, he said, whether there’s something genetic about wrestling in the Caucasus. Maybe it’s because the people there had to fend off Persian invasions so many times.

“Physically, there are very tough guys in Dagestan,” he said. What wrestling meant to him was a chance to refocus that toughness. “I didn’t win anything at first. But then, slowly, I worked on my character, brick by brick. I wouldn’t say I’m very talented. With me, it’s just work.”

And that character comes out as a contest nears its climax, both wrestlers sapped, reduced to nothing but willpower, Magomedov said. “Who will show that desire to win more than the other?” That desire, he said, doesn’t just happen overnight — it’s forged through years of training.

Now, if wrestling is excluded from the Olympics, its popularity is sure to fall. “So all these kids
will be in the streets,” he said. “Crime, drugs — I don’t want to go into it.”

In Dagestan, there is also the lure of the “forest” — the encampments, in other words, of rebel bands fighting to establish an extremist Islamist state.

On Feb. 17, a 2008 silver medal winner, Bakhtiyar Akhmedov, was hospitalized in Dagestan with a bullet wound to the stomach. He refused to finger anyone, telling police he had accidentally shot himself.

A worldwide brotherhood

Ostroumov once wrestled in the World Cup tournament, in 1985 in Colorado Springs, weighing in at 114 pounds. He’s 47 now and a bit thicker, proud of his membership in the brotherhood of cauliflower ears, a fraternity of men who can spot one another anywhere in the world.

Even for those thousands of his boys who don’t go on to the Olympics, he said, wrestling instills a respect for ambition and a dedication to hard work. Without the Olympics, he said, the aura cannot be the same.

“I owe everything I’ve achieved in life to sports,” he said. “But if wrestling is excluded from the Olympics, I will leave. I’m a patriot of Moscow and of sports, but I will leave. I will be very sorry, but I will leave. I can’t be dishonest with my boys.”

Azamat Takhoyev was in the training hall when he heard the bewildering news. In 2020, he will be 24, a prime age for champion wrestlers. “We were all here together,” he remembered. “How could this be true?”

The coaches were gruff. “Get back to work,” they said. “Your job is in the here and now. Besides, there are still the 2016 Games to worry about.”

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