Russia put troops on the Ukrainian mainland for the first time Saturday, deploying 80 soldiers along with four helicopter gunships and three armored vehicles to seize a natural gas terminal distribution station near Crimea. Crimea is set to vote Sunday whether to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Ukraine’s government and Western governments have denounced the vote as illegal.
What role, if any, can sports play amid such turmoil?
The Olympic movement aims to move the world toward peace. Can it?
What of the symbolism in the protest Saturday in Sochi by the Ukrainian cross-country ski team at the Paralympics? On the podium, as the rival Russians collected their golds, the Ukrainians — winners of silver — covered their medals in silent protest.
“It is a silent protest, fighting for peace for everyone … because the situation in Ukraine didn’t change,” Ukraine team official Nataliya Harach would later tell Associated Press.
Here in Los Angeles, at wrestling’s annual World Cup, the Ukraine and Russian men’s freestyle wrestling teams squared off in pool play, beforehand the two squads meeting in the middle of the mat for the traditional handshakes. In some cases, there were genuine hugs.
“Sport is not political,” a Ukrainian national team coach, Yurii Nazarenko, would say later. “Just go wrestle,” adding a moment later, “We can’t really fight about anything.”
Before each of the eight individual matches, the two wrestlers, one Ukrainian, one Russian, one in red, the other in blue, would once more shake hands. Afterward, no matter the result — Russia defeated Ukraine, 7-1 — again they shook hands.
At the end of every match, each Ukrainian wrestler shook hands with the Russian delegation. And vice-versa.
“They come on the mat, they fight like warriors and then they shake hands and then they shake hands again," Nazarenko said speaking through a translator. "That is the beauty of the sport.”
Christakis Alexandridis, the Russian coach, said, “They are our brothers. We support our brothers. We don’t go for political ideas. We go for sport ideas. A political situation can happen to any family. We will be brothers forever.”
This, bottom line, is why wrestling has been part of the Olympic Games since the beginning, why its adherents fought so fiercely to keep it in the program last year when the International Olympic Committee’s executive board had moved last February to give it the boot, why its ethos deserves renewed attention and respect.
Intriguingly, of course, Russian president Vladimir Putin was one of the biggest backers of the push to keep wrestling in the Games.
Putin was in Sochi on Saturday, where he watched part of the cross-country event, meeting with Ukraine Paralympic Committee president Valery Sushkevich.
“During the meeting, they discussed how the celebration of sport, especially one like the Paralympics, cannot and should not come under the influence of some or other processes on the international political agenda of the day,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
In Los Angeles, Andy Barth, head of the World Cup LA organizing committee, said at Saturday evening's formal opening ceremony, amid flags from Russia, Ukraine, Iran, the United States and elsewhere, “We come here as competitors, as wrestlers — we leave as friends.”
The president of the international wrestling federation, FILA, Nenad Lalovic of Serbia, was supposed to be at the World Cup event. Complications from a broken arm kept him in Europe. In a taped video message, he noted the obvious — teams from Russia and Ukraine, Iran and the United States — and said, “We send the world a message that friendship is always possible.”
This is because Olympic wrestling is fundamental, elemental and close.
The two guys — for this discussion, Saturday’s wrestling involved only men — have to confront each other, physically, mentally and emotionally. Of course, they have to compete. But it’s not like track and field, or swimming. They have to engage. They have to touch each other. There is no hiding.
As physical as wrestling is, and for sure it is physical, it is even more a test of wills.
That’s why there is so much respect and goodwill out there on the mat and within and among anyone who knows wrestling.
Alexandridis said, “In this place, all is friends. USA, Iran, Russia, Ukraine, no problem, all is friends. We are one family. The family name is wrestling family. We are here, one family. All is friends, everybody. Come on, everybody.”
A couple hours after Russia and Ukraine got after it, the Iranians and Americans met on the mat. Again, there were handshakes.
"It's best if sports and politics don't mix," Iranian wrestler Reza Yazdani, who competes at 97 kilos, or 213 pounds, said, speaking through a translator. "In wrestling, it's best if the politics stay out of the sport itself and people are able to appreciate the sport for what it is."
U.S. coach Zeke Jones said, “Wrestling is the common bond in the world.
“If you look around the world, this is the sport that bonds the world together. I don’t know any other sport that has this many countries that have wrestling. And there is a certain amount of respect for a wrestler who bleeds out on the mat. We fight each other. But when we leave, we shake hands.
“We knew because we’re in the fight together that when we leave — we’re friends.”
In the second match, 61 kilograms, or 134 pounds, as Reece Humphrey of the United States and Masoud Esmailpoor Jouybari of Iran were going at it, the two wrestlers skittered off the mat, the Iranian finding himself on the edge of the other, where wrestlers from Turkey and Armenia were competing.
Before Humphrey and Jouybari started up again, they shook hands — no hard feelings.
“You gotta respect these guys,” Humphrey would say later.
“When you’re on the mat, you gotta fight. I knew I was getting ready to go into a war, a fistfight, basically. When he was pushing me out of bounds, he drove a couple extra steps, so I kind of threw him down. and it’s weird - because I could start to feel him break a little bit. But that guy doesn’t break. He just keeps coming. And then you slap hands. It’s like, ‘Hey, man, let’s go. It’s going to be a good fight.’ So, there’s always sportsmanship with a guy that can beat you or almost beat you.
“You’ve got to respect them. Because you know the work they put in. It’s got to be just as good as yours."
Humphrey built a 6-1 lead, pushed it to 8-1. Then, though, Jouybari cut it to 8-3, tied it up at 8 and, finally, won, 10-8. At the end, the two guys hugged.
Over the course of the evening, the Iranians defeated the Americans, 5-3.
At the 2013 World Cup in Teheran, with seven classes instead of eight, the Iranians defeated the U.S., 6-1. A couple of swings here and there Saturday night — besides Humphrey’s match, the Americans lost two by the same 1-0 score — and things might well have gone the other way.
That’s what was on Jones’ mind at the end of the night. Not world politics.
“I know the rest of the world is paying attention to it but when we go out there, we are shooting double-legs and trying to get gut-wrenches,” he said, using wrestling lingo for take-downs.
“We’re not thinking about what the political leaders are doing. We want to focus on what our wrestling matches are doing. Obviously they are a great, great competitor — Iran. We want to beat them. And they want to beat us. They showed up to win. And they did tonight.”