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FIRST IN WAR... ...AS IN PEACE, THE SONS OF OSSETIA FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT

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I waited for the Aeroflot plane to Moscow with the three war
correspondents who were coming back from covering the troubles
in Chechnya. They were the only other people waiting who spoke
English. The flight on this December afternoon was already three
hours late, and the front doors to the old terminal at
Vladikavkaz Airport were wide open. Everyone stamped around in
the cold. We were in Northern Ossetia, a tiny Russian republic
surrounded by uprisings and border disputes. The war
correspondents had traveled from Grozny, the Chechen capital,
which was 80, maybe 90 miles down the road.

"Did you wear your flak jacket, Sebastien?" the correspondent
from The Times of London asked the correspondent from Agence
France-Presse, who had been in the mountains with the Chechen
guerrillas.

"Yes, I did," Sebastien replied. "I don't know why, though. I
don't think it can do much for you if you're in the way of
something troublesome."

A discussion ensued about the efficacy of flak jackets.
Sebastien was not a big believer in them, especially the Kevlar
jackets. He said flak jackets were fine for stopping a pistol
shot or maybe some shrapnel, but he had heard that the Kevlar
jackets might cause a bullet from a higher-caliber weapon, such
as a Russian Kalashnikov rifle, to flatten out and bore an
especially gaping path through the body. The wound would be
larger than usual, and probably fatal. Then again, who could say
for sure? "It's all fate, anyway," Sebastien said.

The Times' correspondent nodded. Fate, yes. The correspondent
from London's Evening Standard also nodded. I was not sure what
to do--I was a sportswriter. I nodded to make the vote unanimous.

"What did you say you were doing here?" the Evening Standard
correspondent asked.

"I was here for the wrestling," I said. "There are some very
good wrestlers in Vladikavkaz. The best wrestlers in the world."

Wrestling. I had been in Vladikavkaz for four dark days. The sun
never appeared. Low clouds obscured the nearby Caucasus
Mountains. Old Russian army trucks bounced through the streets,
with their drivers not caring about the potholes but swerving to
miss the many manholes whose iron covers were missing. Russian
soldiers drank vodka at night in the 40-watt shadows of the bar
at the Intourist hotel.

Wrestling. On the day I arrived there was a raid at a border
outpost within three miles of the Vladikavkaz airport. The
Ingush to the east--as opposed to the Chechens to the north--had
killed three Ossetian guards and wounded four. The next day,
within a mile of the Intourist, a man exploded two hand grenades
in a kindergarten schoolroom. The man was wounded, as were three
kids; three others were killed. On the third day...well, on the
third day Malik Tedeyev, an assistant coach on the Russian
national wrestling team, described the geopolitics of his native
region.

"We are here," he said, sticking his right thumb into the air.
"This is Ossetia. We are Christian.

"All around," he continued, running his left index finger around
the outside of the thumb, "are the Muslims. We are alone."

Wrestling. The Ossetians have produced some of the best
freestyle wrestlers in the world. That was supposed to be my
story. Russia's Greco-Roman wrestlers--most notably two-time
heavyweight gold medalist Aleksandr Karelin, who at 6'4" and
297 pounds is probably the most physically imposing athlete
coming to Atlanta--also have been perennially successful, but
their team has been drawn from the width and breadth of a giant
country. The Russian freestyle roster, on the other hand,
typically has been nearly half-filled with Ossetians. The number
of champions from such a small republic (pop. 690,000) has been
amazing.

Wrestling. I tried to concentrate on this success, on the facts
of the sport--"So how many gold medals did Ossetians win in
Barcelona? Three? Very impressive"--but the uneasy atmosphere in
Vladikavkaz made it hard to concentrate. Three gold medals in
Seoul? One silver, one bronze? Very nice, but what would happen
next around me? Who were those men talking in the dark? Why was
that dog barking? Where were those soldiers going? Martial law,
in effect almost continuously since 1991, during the civil war
to the south in Georgia, had been lifted only in the past year.

"We are good wrestlers here because we are survivors," explained
Makharbek Khadartsev, who will be trying for his third gold
medal at 198 1/2 pounds. "It is in the blood. We are descendants
of the Alani, who were massacred by Genghis Khan. [According to
local legend, he ordered that all men in the region taller than
a wagon wheel be decapitated.] Our ancestors were the ones who
fled into the mountains, who survived. The weak could not
survive, only the strong. We Ossetians have always fought for
our lives."

The image of the Mongols rolling toward this landscape in the
13th century was replaced more recently by the image of German
soldiers being stopped at Vladikavkaz by Ossetian troops during
World War II. One of every two Ossetian soldiers was killed.
Vladikavkaz was named by the Soviet government as one of the 14
heroic cities in the Soviet Union.

A reminder of the Soviet era, a 30-foot-tall statue of Lenin,
still stands in a downtown square. Unlike Chechnya, Ossetia is a
place happy to be allied with Mother Russia, even after the fall
of Communism. Joseph Stalin, whose father, Visarion, was an
Ossetian, remains a local hero. The KGB building--four floors
above ground, four below--continues to operate. Survivors always.

"Stalin sent the Ingush to Central Asia," Tedeyev said,
explaining one current border problem. "Now, since the breakup
of the Soviet Union, they want their lands back."

"Stalin actually saved the Ingush," Khadartsev corrected.
"Beria, the head of the KGB, wanted to put them all on ships in
the Mediterranean, then blow up the ships. Stalin said, 'No,
send them to Asia.' The Ingush should thank Stalin."

Wrestling. Tedeyev was my guide to the sport and the country; he
was my genial host. He arranged everything. Need dinner? He
would make reservations for us at the Beirut Restaurant. Then he
would order--no menu required--and the food would come in waves.
Need to know something about the wrestlers? He knew all their
histories and their chances for success. Need to know something
about the republic? He knew that too.

"You should be here in the summer," he said again and again
through an interpreter. "You should see the mountains. Better
than Switzerland."

Tedeyev and Arsen Fadzayev, a fellow Ossetian and two-time gold
medalist who stepped down as the Russian freestyle coach to make
a comeback in Atlanta, work with wrestlers of all ages in the
dim little Spartak gym in Vladikavkaz. In December some 30 to 40
wrestlers at a time were on the mats, grinding each other into
submission. Four ropes hung at one end of the gym with wrestlers
climbing to the top and sliding back down. A fat tractor tire
and a sledgehammer were their bodybuilding tools. This was no
high-tech operation filled with digital-readout muscle machines.
Champions of the past simply taught challengers of today the
moves and holds.

"We could have better surroundings," Tedeyev said, "but this is
the best atmosphere for wrestling...spartan."

Every day a wrestling official would arrive with a box of money,
rubles in huge stacks like the ones you see in comic strips. He
would call several wrestlers to his side, consult a list and
hand out the money. The amounts were not so big--$50 to $100
worth of devalued rubles makes an impressive pile--but the sight
of the money changing hands was startling. Though the official
explained that the payments were for performance, I didn't
understand. What performance? When? What were the rates? There
was much I didn't understand.

The 31-year-old Khadartsev, for instance. A squarely built hulk
with a prominent chin and battered nose and ears, he was clearly
more than a wrestler. In addition to working out daily, he was
running a brewery that manufactured 13 products, from beer to
vodka to lemonade. He was a local presence: part businessman,
part superstar, part union-buster. He drove a black Mercedes
one day, a Chevy Blazer the next. He spoke, and people moved
into action. "This is my interpreter," he said, introducing a
young woman in his modern, newly decorated offices at the
brewery. "Tell me if she speaks English well. If she doesn't, I
will fire her."

The woman interpreted the words. Very well. She laughed.

I had read that various sports federations were part of the new
Mafia that took control of many activities in Russia after the
breakup of the Soviet Union. Was the wrestling federation an
example? Khadartsev said he hoped to be the president of Ossetia
in 10 years. The current president, Akhsarbek Galazov, has long
been close to the wrestling community. Ruslan Geoev, the head of
the Northern Ossetia Wrestling Federation, was running for a
spot in the Russian parliament, the Duma. Was wrestling more
than just a sport? This was something else I did not know.

A visitor from the U.S. was trying to get an international phone
line in the Intourist hotel one day. He was told a line would
not be available for two weeks. Soslan Andiev, a freestyle super
heavyweight gold medalist in 1976 and 1980 and now the president
of the Ministry of Sport for Northern Ossetia, heard the
conversation and picked up the phone. He told the operator his
name and position and demanded a line. A half hour or so passed
before he handed the phone to the American. The line was open.

"Why is the sport so big here?" I asked Tedeyev one night as he
drove the dark and bumpy streets along the Terek River in
Vladikavkaz, whose name means "power of the Caucasus." "Why is
it so important?"

"This is a place of tradition," he explained. "The young ones
watch the older ones succeed. They want to do the same thing.
From World War II until the last 10 years, there really was no
other sport here except wrestling. Now there is soccer too, but
wrestling is still important. Since the breakup some of our
wrestlers have gone to other countries: Germany. Ukraine. The
coach in Ukraine says to send him any wrestlers who do not make
the Russian team. They will be his stars."

He continued driving. He described a town, somewhere near the
border, that had been raided a few years ago, its citizens
killed, its buildings burned. He said the town's ruins had been
left in place as a memorial. Maybe we could go and see it.

"We are survivors," Tedeyev said. "We endure. Do you know that
this was where Alexander the Great was stopped? Even though he
outnumbered us 20 to one?"

Wrestling. I waited for the Aeroflot plane with the war
correspondents.

For the past two years the Ossetians have held a competition
called Ossetia Against the World, inviting the best foreign
wrestlers to compete against them. A number of U.S. champions
have participated, drawn by large cash prizes. The first year,
1994, Ossetia beat the World, six matches to four. Last year the
World won, 6-4.

After I returned home I called the American wrestler whom the
Ossetians had mentioned most, a particular favorite of theirs
who had been to the republic many times and spoke Russian. He
was not home when I called, so I spoke to his wife. She had some
of the same feelings I had. She said Ossetia once had been "the
safest place in the world to visit but now is the scariest." She
said the wrestlers certainly were in control of more than just
wrestling. Her husband, she said, could talk more about all this.

I meant to call back the next day, but something happened, then
something happened the day after that. There was no rush. Two
weeks went past, and I opened the newspaper one morning to read
that Dave Schultz, the wrestler the Ossetians loved so dearly,
had been shot dead on the grounds of John du Pont's estate in
Newtown Square, Pa. The police had surrounded the mansion and
arrested Du Pont for the murder.

Wrestling. The story was supposed to be about wrestling.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN IN THE SPARTAK TRAINING HALL, ONE IS NEVER TOO YOUNG TO WORK ON AN OLYMPIC DREAM [Two Ossetian boys wrestling]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN IT ISN'T A STRETCH TO PREDICT A THIRD GOLD MEDAL FOR KHADARTSEV, WHO IS ALSO A FIVE-TIME WORLD CHAMPION [Makharbek Khadartsev]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN THE TECH IS DEFINITELY NOT HIGH AT SPARTAK, BUT THE RATIO OF CHAMPIONS TO STUDENTS IS [Pairs of wrestlers training on mats]

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN THREE DOZEN OR SO WRESTLERS EACH DAY GRAPPLE WITH THE BASICS OF THEIR SPORT UNDER THE WATCHFUL EYE OF VASILY KOCHIEV OR ANOTHER SPARTAK COACH [Two young wrestlers in training match; Vasily Kochiev observing two wrestlers in match]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN VADIM TASOEV (RIGHT) CASHES IN AT THE GYM, BUT FEDERATION OFFICIALS DO SO IN THE POLITICAL ARENA, WHERE WRESTLING TIES CAN BE MORE PRECIOUS THAN RUBLES [Man in training hall giving money to Vadim Tasoev]