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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Wrestling for Russia, Winning for Chechnya

At the Atlanta Olympics, Russia won 26 gold medals, second only to the United States, a testament, some might say, to the country's enduring presence as a global sports power. But behind one of those gold medals lies a story that tarnishes the collective luster of the new Russia's gold haul.

As a roving reporter for Sports Illustrated in Atlanta, I had my share of exciting moments and reporting adventures. I interviewed the first woman to compete for Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. I talked with a former Soviet coach who has a new lease on life coaching American shooters. And I witnessed Lithuania, a country of 3 million people, gamely defend its reputation in basketball by winning its second medal in as many Olympics.

But, four weeks after the Olympics, one memory above all stays with me. On Aug. 1, Buvaysa Saytiyev, representing the Russian Federation, defeated South Korea's Park Jang-soon to win the gold medal in the 163-pound weight category in freestyle wrestling. Just 21 years old, Saytiyev is being hailed as one of Russia's new wrestling stars.

What a journalist would be hard pressed to find out is that Saytiyev is from Chechnya. Saytiyev's ascent to stardom in international wrestling -- he won the World Championships in 1995 -- has coincided with Russia's blundering and bloody military effort to quell Chechnya's drive for independence, which has left at least 30,000 people dead.

In Atlanta, Russian Olympic authorities did their best to conceal the identity of Chechens on the Russian Olympic team. And Chechens themselves, spooked by the debilitating campaign being waged against them, are almost sworn to silence through an instinct for survival.

At the Georgia World Congress Center, I met by chance two fans from Chechnya who were excited that Saytiyev would be going for the gold later in the day. Determined to cheer on Saytiyev, their republic's lone hope for a gold medal, the two men, Yaiya Sembayev, 36, and Khason Ganiyev, 30, told me they had journeyed from their village five kilometers outside the Chechen capital of Grozny up through neighboring Ukraine where they purchased American visas through black market connections in Kiev. Then, they flew to Moscow. Several hours after landing in Moscow, while buying cigarettes at an outdoor kiosk, the two men were hauled off by police for interrogation and finger printing, a common occurrence. After a night in jail, they convinced the authorities they were not rebels but just sports fans who had tickets to Atlanta.

Though thousands of kilometers away from their war-ravaged homeland, in Atlanta the two men were still haunted by the war. They spoke in hushed tones. On the escalator, they motioned me to a remote corner of the Georgia World Congress Center so we could talk in privacy. "We can't take two steps in Russia without being stopped. Even in Atlanta, when we leave our hotel, we make sure we have our passports and are ready to be searched," said Ganiyev. "There's no ease, just worry."

It was a strange sight to see. While boisterous Olympic spectators clambered up the escalators, the two men, fidgeting and glancing about, talked about what had happened to their homeland. "Everything is destroyed. Houses are bombed. People are killed," said Ganiyev. "Not one family has escaped loss." At the wrestling competition, they told me they were passed a Russian flag to wave. They threw it on the ground.

When I asked Rudolf Nezvetsky, press attach? for the Russian Olympic team in Atlanta, about the presence of a Chechen on the Russian wrestling team, he completely ignored the issue of ethnic background. "Many of our best wrestlers come from the Caucacus," Nezvetsky said dismissively. "Unlike you American journalists, we don't distinguish between them."

After Saytiyev's victory, the Chechen contingent in Atlanta could no longer contain itself. Some 15 burly Chechens, including Olympians competing for Moldova and Kazakhstan, formed a circle and tossed Saytiyev in the air. "Our first Olympic champion," came the shouts. "From Chechnya."

According to Ganiyev, eight ethnic Chechens competed for various former Soviet republics in Atlanta, most in wrestling and weightlifting. But the war has decimated the ranks of the republic's athletes. Saytiyev was one of the luckier ones. He now lives and trains in Krasnoyarsk, a Russian wrestling center. But his family remains in Chechnya.

After the impromptu celebration of his victory, Saytiyev politely fielded banal questions from Russian television reporters. "Unfortunately, it's a difficult time for my people," he later said. "I am happy if I can bring some kind of happiness to my people, if even for a short time."

At the Olympics, an extremely condensed moment -- a span of a minute or two -- can provide moments of intense insight into the history and culture of a country and not only Chechnya.

Take an encounter I had with an Iranian studying at an American university. In search of information on a top Iranian wrestler named Rassul Khadem, I headed toward the Iranian cheering section, a boisterous group which had been waving green, white and red flags and chanting support for Iran's wrestlers. I had read that out of respect for his older brother, also a wrestler on the Iranian Olympic team, Rassul Khadem always walked a step or two behind him. Khadem's devotion intrigued me. I asked the young Iranian student why, after winning the gold medal in the 198 pound category, Kadem had dropped to his knees and bowed down. The next thing I knew he had dropped to his knees. I thought he was improving on a map he had been drawing to show me the wrestler's hometown. I bent down. Then I noticed my new friend was in tears. I felt as if I had stumbled into a cultural chasm. "I am sorry if I offended you," I said quickly. "No don't worry," he said as he collected himself. "You just don't understand," he continued as he looked up at me from his knees. "In Iran, when we have a great victory, we lower ourselves. It is a way to show respect. In America, you have so much 'Rah, rah, rah.'"

On the fringes of the celebration for Saytiyev's victory, I spotted Ganiyev and Sembayev, who had come down from the stands. Earlier in the day, the men had seemed lost amid the upbeat Olympic atmosphere, unable to share fully in goodwill and camaraderie which swept over Atlanta in response to the tragic bombing in Centennial Olympic Park. But, for a few minutes after Saytiyev's victory, they were able to hear the sound of cheers, not the rat-a-tat-tat of machines guns or the boom of shells. They were able to rejoice. "He will be a national hero," said Ganiyev of Saytiyev. "The politicians will say he is Russian, but that's all right because we know he's from Chechnya."

The two men started their long journey home on Aug. 5. "If they allow us to return, we will go," were Ganiyev's parting words. "Where else can we go?"

Jeff Lilley covers sports in the former Soviet Union. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.