When Georgian wrestlers compete in the London Summer Olympics, they will be defending more than their country’s two 2008 gold medals. For the wrestling team, the 2012 Games are an important stop on a decades-long journey back to international prominence.
Thirteen members of the country’s 35-strong Olympic contingent are wrestlers, competing in every weight class but one, and putting tiny Georgia in the same league as Russia, the United States and Kazakhstan. Georgian wrestling (“chidaoba”) can trace its history back over a thousand years as a form of self-defense. Its champions have won Olympic medals since 1952, the year when Georgians brought home the Soviet Union’s first two gold medals in freestyle wrestling.
But the sport fell into disarray as Georgia grappled with war and civil unrest following the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union. As funding dried up, athletes grappled with “cold and hunger,” and coaches worked out of enthusiasm alone, recounted two-time Olympic champion Davit Gobejishvili, head of the Georgian Wrestling Federation from 1994 to 2001.
With little money for wrestling, some athletes sought to survive by other means, said Alexander Kupatadze, a Georgian scholar specializing in organized crime. “They had these skills; they had been trained to use violence, but they could not use the skills professionally, so they had to do something,” Kupatadze said.
In the 1990s, former wrestling coach Davit “Kalatoza” Kareseladze became the most notable example of this trend, using his protégé wrestlers as enforcers in racketeering and robbery, according to criminal investigations by the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Kareseladze, who was imprisoned in 2004 for illegal arms possession, has since left Georgia.
“That period was not just dangerous for wrestling; it was dangerous for life,” commented Gobejishvili, referring to the corruption and chaos before the 2003 Rose Revolution. “But we lived through it. We got past it, and we are living on.”
The transition, however, has been a bumpy one.
In 2005, at the height of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s war against corruption, law-enforcement officials moved against organized criminal structures. Among the scores of mafia foot soldiers brought in on charges of extortion and robbery as the government reasserted its authority were wrestlers and judoka, including a former judo world champion, Aleksi Davitashvili, who then headed the Georgian Wrestling Federation.
Charged with attempting to extort $20,000 from a businessman, Davitashvili’s arrest prompted the largest street protests in Tbilisi since the 2003 revolution, with wrestling fans and wrestlers themselves closing major roads, and destroying police cars and other property.
Zurab Zviadauri, who, in 2004, won independent Georgia’s first gold medal (in judo, a cousin to wrestling), asserted that the arrest was a mistake. “This was not extortion; these people were asking for a debt to be paid off,” claimed Zviadauri, an acquaintance of the accused. “But then it was turned into PR, as if they were criminals. But they weren’t criminals.”
Zviadauri, who is running for parliament as part of the Georgian Dream opposition coalition, helped ease tension between the police and Georgian wrestlers by asking the government’s pardon for the sportsmen’s near-riot. The arrests were “unpleasant” for the wrestling community, but not fatal, noted sports writer Gabriel Barjadze, a former wrestler and author of a book about the history of Georgian wrestling.
“Of course, it was a shock [when they arrested Davitashvili], when they arrested such a champion, put handcuffs on him, and forced him to the ground,” Barjadze said. “Of course, it was unfortunate, but, regardless, the sport developed.”
And continued to support its own: Davitashvili, 38, went right back to wrestling and judo after leaving prison in 2008, and is the only Georgian wrestler to have won eight national wrestling championships. In a phone interview with EurasiaNet.org, Davitashvili, who now works as a coach for the Georgian Wrestling Federation, declined to discuss his arrest, but expressed strong confidence in a “chidaoba” comeback.
The Georgian Ministry of Sports and Youth is now paying more attention to wrestling “because they understand that it is successful,” he said. Government scouts regularly head to the regions to seek out potential champions for further training in Tbilisi.
That trend comes as no surprise to Olympic gold medalist Zviadauri. “This talent . . . is in our genes. As long as there have been Georgians, there has been wrestling.”
Another victory in London, he said, would be a sweet reminder that Georgian athletes are more than pawns for political or criminal games; ultimately, they are champions.
“[The team’s success in the Olympics will show] that we are athletes and big athletes do not belong to themselves. They belong to their country, their people.”
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.