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Original Issue

Laughers on and off the mat

Nothing out West could suppress the Soviets' heel-kicking antics

Levan, Ivan and Soslan were their names and they led the frolic around California last week. When they were not performing for the Soviet national wrestling team, they were busy demolishing whatever remains of the myth that Russians are by nature a gloomy lot. They swam in their skivvies, strummed balalaikas, were nuzzled by a bear, good-naturedly threw people into pools, drank gallons of soda pop, saw the sights and in general created a great deal of high-spirited commotion.

Along the way—in Long Beach, San Diego and Berkeley—the Soviets were also devouring hapless squads of American wrestlers as if they were so much shashlik. This was to be expected, perhaps, and in any case the Americans did not seem to take it too hard. The Russian team was, after all, probably the finest of all time. On its 10-man roster were six reigning world champions, including four who were gold medalists at the 1972 Olympics. Led by Levan Tediashvili, Ivan Yarygin and Soslan Andiyev, they seemed to be trying to prove themselves in off-mat antics, too.

Tediashvili, who wrestles at 198 pounds, grew up in the republic of Georgia, helped in the family vineyard and at a tender age became an expert wine taster. He was not, he claims, under the influence of the grape the day he took an umbrella in hand, leaped from the second floor of his house and broke a leg. That is just the way he is.

Yarygin, whose hair is almost as red as the team uniforms, comes from Siberia where, he says, he has shot "one moose, three brown bears and many, many wild goats." A 220-pounder and one of the world's most splendidly muscled athletes, he once took ballet lessons.

At 21, Andiyev is the youngest of the six world champions on the squad. He is also, at 6'7" and 255 pounds, the biggest. And he is as hard to defeat as the name of his hometown—Ordzhonikidze—is to pronounce. His frailty, teammates have discovered, is that he is extremely ticklish.

"In all things we try to have fun, because it relieves the pressure," says Andiyev, who holds the world heavyweight title. On this tour there has been little pressure on any of the three. Andiyev and Olympic gold medalist Tediashvili have not lost since 1972. Yarygin, who pinned all seven of his Munich Olympic foes in a total time of 18:08, is in the midst of a four-year winning streak. No team member will admit to knowing precisely how many victories in a row he has, because Soviet philosophy insists, as Tediashvili puts it, that "we don't remember how many wins we have, but we never forget the losses."

During the first four matches of their six-city tour that began three weeks ago in Manhattan and will end this week in Virginia, the Soviets lost only two of 40 bouts. They also forfeited one because of illness and had one draw. Yarygin and Andiyev pancaked all four of their opponents, often making the American wrestlers look like a bunch of Clark Can'ts. The results may have been sad, but what they really prove is that in an international test you cannot hope to match the best of their best when your own top wrestlers are too involved with studies or jobs to compete.

In any case, there was obviously no danger that all wrestling and no play would make dull Soviet boys. While teammates strummed balalaikas in a restaurant, Tediashvili and Andiyev did an energetic Georgian folk dance called a lezginka. For some reason, someone brought Gentle Ben, the TV bear eliminated not long ago by a full-Nielsen from the weekly tube menu, to the matches in San Diego. Tediashvili and Andiyev went along with the gag and allowed Ben to nibble Tootsie Rolls they held gently between their lips.

The same two, plus Yarygin, decided at 11 o'clock one night in San Diego that what they needed most was a dip in the hotel pool. So they took one, semistreaking it in their undershorts. Earlier that day Tediashvili had spotted Guy Hopper, a 6'8", 300-pound American who was to escort the Russian group. With a mighty effort he grabbed the astonished Hopper and heaved both Guy and himself into the pool.

Later, Yarygin was restrained from trying to ride a dolphin at Sea World, but when next seen he had plucked a Volkswagen-size turtle from the water and was holding it aloft. At a Globetrotter game. Andiyev picked up Geese Ausbie of the Trotters and, with ridiculous ease, held him overhead. Shortly before the matches at San Diego State University the Soviets were taken to a large room to "relax." A judo class was being held in the room. On entering, Tediashvili rushed over to a girl judoist and flipped her over his shoulder. To assure her that it was all in fun, he helped her up—and then immediately flipped her again. Walking away, he blew her a kiss. And several limes the Soviets loosened up by-playing their own brand of basketball, a game that incorporates elements of football, soccer, rugby and, only occasionally, dribbling.

The cheerful uproar that preceded and followed the wrestling encounters went on and on. Team Leader Valeri Kudryashov was observed at one point riding a bicycle backward. While the Soviets waited for a driver to take them to practice, one of them stood outside the bus and rocked it while another, inside, kept squirting the automatic windshield washer. They guzzled capitalist Cokes at breakfast, lunch and dinner and were captivated by, as Yarygin called it, "ruck and rull." At Sea World, the Soviet interpreter, 24-year-old Mrs. Tanya Kuharskaya, was kissed by Shamu the killer whale. No sweat. Such problems as arose were overcome. The Soviets let it be known that American toast tasted like cotton. So a Long Beach woman baked them 15 loaves of Russian bread.

The only major crisis occurred when all the Soviets vanished from San Diego. Poof. Gone. AAU representative John Dustin turned green until he learned that they had left for Berkeley four hours early. Then Dustin laughed and laughed, almost as if he had learned the secret of successful wrestling during his time with the Soviets—that in all things one should try to have fun.