It’s a misleading walk that medal winners take to medal ceremonies at the Olympics. The silver medalist goes first, then the gold winner, with the bronze medalist behind. It’s done this way because of how the athletes line up on the medal platform — gold always in the middle. But as they moved through the walkway toward the arena, the order was an odd juxtaposition of where their rivalry stands at the moment.
The two men, who might be the most powerful in wrestling, have met three times, and Sadulaev has won the past two. On Saturday, he seemed in control the whole time.
“Unbelievable,” Sadulaev said afterward. “I know this feeling because five years [ago] I became Olympic champion.”
Once, they existed in parallel worlds of dominance. Both men won gold medals at the 2016 Olympics, Snyder tearing through the 97-kilogram (213.8-pound) weight class and Sadulaev thundering to victory at 86 kilograms (189.5 pounds). Then, Sadulaev moved to 97 in 2017, and the super rivalry was born, their nicknames perfect for a classic U.S.-Russia wrestling war.
When they first met at that year’s world championships, Snyder won, 6-5. That remains the most recent time Sadulaev has lost a match. In 2018, Sadulaev pinned Snyder for a victory. In 2019, Snyder lost early in the tournament, squashing any chance of another bout. In 2020, there were no world championships.
All of that made Saturday night’s match seem so big. In an interview the night before, Snyder, who has never been overly revealing about his feelings, admitted he has thought a lot about Sadulaev. How could he not? It was all everyone was talking about.
When they finally wrestled again, late Saturday night, the setting seemed wrong for such a titanic matchup. The four sets of steel stands in a vast convention center were empty, with only journalists and members of the American and Russian wrestling teams packed into a section close to the mat.
Perhaps attempting to create some kind of tension, and certainly understanding the recent dominance of the Russian Tank, the U.S. wrestlers chanted Snyder’s name. They pounded their feet on the steel bleachers. They clapped as one. They yelled: “USA! USA! USA!” Sadulaev walked slowly into the arena. Snyder ran in.
As the whistle blew, Snyder pounced. Sadulaev played defense. And that’s the way it went. The two men circling each other, heads touching, arms on shoulders, neither able to do much. Sadulaev won an inactivity point and twice got two-point exposures. Essentially that was the match. Snyder’s attacks were blocked. Sadulaev was too strong to take down.
Later, when they were done, Snyder would assess the match with little emotion, saying simply: “I’ll have to go back and [watch a replay]. Definitely some positions I got to get better in, so that’s what I’m thinking about.”
He said little Saturday, though there was a sense he probably wouldn’t have had a lot more to add had he won. He showed little emotion. If he was angry about the result, he wouldn’t say.
“I’m a competitor, so I hate to lose, and, yeah, so I know there’s things I got to get better at,” he said. “But it’s the spirit of Jesus that’s strong in me. I’m not that strong of a guy, but Jesus is really strong, so his spirit keeps moving forward.”
Asked if Sadulaev is a different wrestler than that time they met in 2017, Snyder shrugged.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not sure.”
When someone wondered if Sadulaev is now just too strong to be beaten, Snyder paused for a second.
“I don’t know,” he said.
He laughed. It was the kind of laugh that said it was a thought he didn’t want to consider.
Snyder brightened when someone brought up the nine wrestling medals the U.S. team won at the Olympics — an enormous number, especially because they were all in freestyle and all five of the American men at these Games won a medal.
“Yeah, guys are getting better and better. Everybody’s doing the right things, and we got great coaches, great support staff, great training environments,” he said. “So, really happy for my teammates, great job here, and happy for the coaches, too, because they work so hard. I think we’re going to dominate, keep getting better.”
At the medal ceremony, he stood on the platform beside Sadulaev, holding a tiny bouquet in his hand, watching without a hint of admiration or disdain as his rival held the gold medal aloft, pretending to bite it.
In the stands, his American teammates, who had done their best to make the Olympics’ biggest wrestling match feel like it, slowly moved down the steps. A few stopped and looked at Snyder standing there with his silver. They waved goodbye. There wasn’t anything more they could do on the night the Russian Tank kept rolling.