Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A wrestling culture that helps keep boys away from fighting




A wrestling culture that helps keep boys away from fighting

Young wrestlers compete on the mat at a school named after Shamil Umakhanov, a World Cup-winning wrestler who died in 1998, in Khasavyurt, Russia, Jan. 31, 2018. Men from Dagestan in southern Russia have long wrestled in bouts between mountain villages. Today, the region embraces the sport as an alternative to Islamist terrorism. Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times
Young wrestlers compete on the mat at a school named after Shamil Umakhanov, a World Cup-winning wrestler who died in 1998, in Khasavyurt, Russia, Jan. 31, 2018. Men from Dagestan in southern Russia have long wrestled in bouts between mountain villages. Today, the region embraces the sport as an alternative to Islamist terrorism. Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times

A wrestling culture that helps keep boys away from fighting

by Sergey Ponomarev

MAKHACHKALA, Russia — Dagestan, a mostly Muslim region in the south of Russia on the northwest coast of the Caspian Sea, is known for the stark beauty of its mountain landscapes, for its many small ethnic groups, for a violent and long-simmering Islamist insurgency — and for its wrestlers.

Thousands of young boys here dream of becoming famous and honored wrestlers, like the many lithe and muscly Olympic champions who came before them. Buvaisar Saitiev won three gold medals, for example, and Mavlet Batirov two.

Towns and villages pour resources into the sport, hiring coaches and transforming movie theaters into gyms. The young boys turn out to stretch and strengthen their muscles, and grapple on the mats before their cheering friends.

Men from Dagestan say they have always wrestled, in traditional bouts between mountain villages. Today, though, the region embraces and loves wrestling not so much for teaching its young men to fight as for keeping them out of the fight with insurgents, offering an alternative to Islamist terrorism.

“Anyone who achieves something in sports feels confident,” said Arsen Saitiev, a school principal in Makhachkala, the capital of the region. “He doesn’t need to prove anything to anybody, and he won’t try to achieve fame in a negative way.”

“Mostly, those who join the underground are adolescents,” Saitiev added. “At this time in their lives, they are trying to prove something. They can find themselves in sports instead, and won’t get involved in this stupidity.”

Children in a training session at a wrestling school named after the Saitiyev brothers in Khasavyurt, Russia, Jan. 31, 2018. Men from Dagestan in southern Russia have long wrestled in bouts between mountain villages. Today, the region embraces the sport as an alternative to Islamist terrorism. Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times
Children in a training session at a wrestling school named after the Saitiyev brothers in Khasavyurt, Russia, Jan. 31, 2018. Men from Dagestan in southern Russia have long wrestled in bouts between mountain villages. Today, the region embraces the sport as an alternative to Islamist terrorism. Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times

People in the Caucasus Mountains say their heritage and environment incline them to wrestling. The severe life in mountain villages and historical battles with neighboring tribes formed an ideal of men able to distinguish themselves with physical strength, grit of character and bravery.

But before the current renaissance, in the Soviet period, wrestling was not given much attention; few villages had gyms, and sports withered.

Adam Saitiev — a brother of Buvaisar, the three-time Olympic champion, and himself a gold medal winner — once paraphrased Karl Marx in an interview with local media, saying that for Dagestan, wrestling “is a means of controlling the masses.'’

‘'Wrestling,” Saitiev said, is preventing young guys from leaving for the forest,” as the Islamist underground is known here.

Every morning dozens of boys and young men turn out to run on the beach along the Caspian Sea. This morning cardio is one of the traditional methods of losing pounds for a wrestler so that he can fall within the needed weight category.

On weekends, wrestlers run on mountain trails, which open on picturesque views of the city. At times, partners will stop and spar in the cold morning air.

Coaches are held in high esteem. After their careers in competition are over, many wrestlers choose to become coaches and mentors. For younger boys, the wrestling gyms serve as day care. Parents leave boys at the sites for hours after school. For young wrestlers, the coach is a father figure and a moral guide.

“The coaches try to educate the athletes in all ways, not only in wrestling,” said Abdul Kazanbiev, a wrestler in training. “They teach them how to behave in life” and on the mat.

Poverty is another reason wrestling became such a popular sport in Dagestan. The equipment is cheap, and a wrestler needs only the one-piece suit, or singlet, and shoes, a manageable expense even for the poor shepherd families in the mountains.

Violence still plagues Dagestan. In February, for example, an Islamic State recruit attacked a church with a rifle and knife. By some estimates, hundreds of Dagestan natives have joined the radical group in Syria.

In neighboring Chechnya, the Russian army crushed the Islamist rebellion a decade or so ago, but insurgents found refuge in the mountainous border region between Chechnya, Dagestan and Georgia, and recruited in the remote villages.

The wrestling gyms offer a different, positive vision of fighting and Islam. Coaches and athletes pray together. And some wrestlers see in the sport a religious significance.

“We always wrestled,” Adam Batirov, who has also competed for a team in Bahrain, said of Dagestan’s highland wrestlers. “The followers of the prophet also wrestled, and as we are Muslims, wrestling came to us with Islam.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Would you like fries with that? US burger chain makes Phnom Penh debut

    California-based The Habit Burger Grill restaurant chain is all set to serve up a delicious array of charbroiled burgers and sides at its newest international location in the centre of Phnom Penh. The Habit is “renowned for its award-winning Charburgers grilled over an open flame,

  • Banteay Meanchey flood victims receive aid

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday provided aid to more than 10,000 families affected by flooding in Banteay Meanchey province’s Mongkol Borei district and offered his condolences to the 18 victims who drowned in the province over the past week. He said flooding had occured in

  • PM urges caution as Polish man tests positive for Covid

    The Ministry of Health on Wednesday reported that a 47-year-old Polish man tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving in Cambodia on Monday. There are a total of six Covid-19 patients currently in the country, all of whom are being treated at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital

  • Banteay Meanchey floods kill one more as death toll reaches 15

    As floodwaters start to recede in Pursat, Battambang and Pailin provinces and Phnom Penh, Banteay Meanchey continues to bear the brunt as one more person was killed on Monday, bringing the total number of flood-related deaths to 15 in the province this month. Banteay Meanchey provincial

  • Serving coffee with a side of robots

    The eye-catching glass building surrounded by greenery at the intersection of Streets 371 and 2002 in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district is more than just another coffee shop where you can while away a few hours. UrHobby House cafe is filled with robots and characters from

  • Floods prompt evacuations in Kampong Speu

    Rain-induced floods and water flowing from Kampong Speu province have submerged the houses of 1,527 families living close to the Prek Thnot River in Spean Thma, Tien, Kong Noy and Roluos communes in Phnom Penh’s Dangkor district, according to data from local authorities. Spean Thma