The Day an Olympic Wrestling Legend was Defeated | Strangest Moments
The underdogs of Olympic wrestling
With the Greco-Roman wrestling kicking off, many of you probably don't have a particular side to root for. No-one's going to blame you for sticking with Team GB but if you want to back the sport's true underdog, the Moldavan team is renownded for punching above its weight. We travelled to Eastern Europe to bring their story to you:
In a non-descript Soviet-era building in the Moldovan capital, 60 local wrestlers are completing their warm up rituals. As beads of condensation form on the gym’s dirty windows and moisture rolls down walls held together by crumbling concrete and decades of sweat, three judges and six stern officiators don traditionally embroidered shirts and conical woollen shepherds’ hats. The national anthem crackles from the antiquated Tannoy as the wrestlers unpeel their shirts.
Solemnly, Dr Serghei Busuioc – former Master of Sport of the USSR; now chairman of the Moldovan Wrestling Federation – leads two challengers to the centre of the room. In a swift, mechanised motion, the men lock heads. The gym falls silent.
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The capacity crowd of 700 spectators (Wembley Arena this is not) are about to witness the first bout of The National Championship of Moldovan Trânta – the country’s pared-back, lightning fast national sport, which is propelling Moldova to the peak of international wrestling glory. After battling a string of opponents, the overall winner will be presented with a live ram to symbolise his virility, and be given the opportunity to represent Moldova at an international level. In a country still living under the oppressive shadow of its communist past, the stakes could not be any higher.
In 1990, this geographically and politically tiny country, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, was hit hard by the Soviet Union’s collapse. Infantry soldiers from the former USSR’s 14th Army started a brief civil war when they took control over a sliver of land in Moldova’s east, stealing both a massive nuclear weapons cache and most of the new state’s heavy industry. Ensuing Russian sanctions choked Moldova’s prosperous vineyards, plunging locals’ wages to some of the lowest in the world.
Ordinary people migrated en masse while oligarchs with convertible currency bought up the country. They now control the government. One businessman and newly elected mayor is currently under house arrest for (allegedly) pinching one billion US dollars from state coffers in a heist dubbed “the bank robbery of the century”. He claims his co-conspirator was the presently imprisoned ex-Prime Minister Vlad Filat. Moldova’s recent history is a bleak story of corruption.
Yet this rational fear for what the future will bring has inspired Moldovans to look to their sporting heritage for a national identity. They found one in Trânta, a traditional, millennia-old offshoot of Greco-Roman wrestling guided by a heady cocktail of strength, honour and mythology.
The format is simple. Men fight for two three-minute rounds. As well as forcing rivals out of the field of play, winners can be decided using a points system – with three awarded for pinning your challenger face down and four for holding him face-to-face, with his shoulders fixed to the floor. If you lift your opponent above your own head for three seconds and demonstrate to the referee that you are able to slam him to the ground, you will be awarded 12 points for clemency and win by default.
The alternative (more traditional) way to end a bout is to uniformly slam your opponent about until he is unable to continue.
Fights blend Greco-Roman grappling with acrobatic throws thought to originate in East African martial arts. Meanwhile, the structure is rooted in Christian symbolism. “In the villages, men used to fight for three days, three hours, three minutes and three seconds,” explains Dr Busuioc. “If after this time they could still fight, a points system decided the winner. Today, fights are shorter but we still make use of this scoring system. The victor is the first to reach 12 points – the number of Christ’s disciples – divisible by the three members of the Holy Trinity, symbolised by the three judges.”
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A handful of the men at today’s tournament are gym-honed pros, but the majority are amateurs from Moldova’s capital and surrounding towns. Winners will be fast-tracked onto wrestling programmes at The State University of Physical Education and Sport – a feeder for Moldova’s national sports teams that also happens to run units in small arms handling and train the secret police. The financial reward for victory comes in the form of a fistful of Euros, the aforementioned livestock and the prospect of being spotted by a contractor offering lucrative work in private security.
The rich recruit “muscle” directly from gyms, often hiring entire sports squads for private protection. Induction into this circle brings money and power. It’s a well-trodden path: former champion Anatoli Moldovan is now President Nicolae Timofti’s personal bodyguard. He recently decked two unfortunates at a tournament in Poland and finds himself unable to attend this morning’s fights due to an attempted coup d’etat.
Brothers in arms
The tournament begins with three fights taking place in three parallel circles. Weight categories are measured by eye rather than scales. The overall quality is high, yet one combatant in particular captures the judges’ attention. Alexandr Romanov – who weighs in excess of 90kg and occasionally moonlights as a Sumo wrestler – is drawn against Nicolai Tataru, a svelte and considerably smaller gentleman adept at fluid trips.
As soon as the two men lock heads, it’s clear that Romanov has studied the other wrestler’s style. Trapping Tataru in a ferocious, cement-strong bear hug, he immediately lifts him onto his shoulder and looks ready to flip him like a sack of potatoes. The method, known as “the shepherd’s lift”, is a Trânta mainstay. It is so well regarded by Moldovans that it became the subject of three national postage stamps.
Holding Tataru aloft, Romanov is pronounced the winner, without the need to slam Tataru to the floor some 7ft below. Dr Busuioc nods his approval. “When you’ve got the other man above your head, it shows huge mercy not to slam him down,” he says. “Especially if he has torn into you for six minutes. You must understand that Moldovans who fight Trânta want honour, not blood.”
Romanov faces a succession of contenders who attempt to outwit him with speed, but “The Giant Man” (as he’s dubbed by local commentators) relies on his strength to halt all in their tracks. Still, his most highly regarded skill as a fighter is not his sheer power, but his tendency to show mercy. Romanov looks set to win the tournament effortlessly. Until, that is, he’s drawn to fight against his own brother, Andrei, in the quarterfinal.
The equally colossal brothers share fraternal arm slaps before entering the arena. They lock heads. Andrei’s upper arm engages. With triceps and traps flaring, he steers his older brother toward the centre of the ring. A grapple ensues. After four minutes of deadlock, Alexandr wrenches Andrei to the edge of the fight zone. Andrei has no choice but to step out of the outer circle, conceding defeat. “I’m glad there was no slamming,” says Dr Busuioc. “For men that size, the consequences are frightening.” The Romanovs hug. Later, Alexandr will go on to claim overall victory.
Power and the Glory
Moldova’s population is a shade over 3.5 million, yet its wrestlers are challenging giants of the sport like Russia, Romania and the US – countries that pump millions of dollars into their Olympic programmes. Moldova’s budget, meanwhile, is in the paltry thousands. Vast areas of the complex hosting today’s contest remain shrouded in darkness, due to the prohibitive cost of turning on the lights. Many of Moldova’s best wrestlers are forced to travel abroad simply to train, earn a living and fight.
And yet since gaining independence, Moldova has taken 26 medals from European and World Wrestling Championships in as many years. In Taekwondo, Judo and weightlifting – the athletes of which all train using Trânta – Moldovans have claimed a further 44 medals on the European and World stages. It’s a trend that looks set to continue as Trânta has now become an established part of the national curriculum.
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“Following independence, children were required to learn Trânta wrestling in school,” says two-time freestyle wrestling world champion Ruslan Bodisteanu. “The dexterity exercises lead young men directly into judo, karate and jiu-jitsu, while the strength training produces weightlifters, boxers and classical wrestlers. Trânta shows three of the best characteristics Moldovans have: strength, courage and mercy. You must be strong and brave enough to fight a guy like Romanov, even if you’re a small guy.”
Political upheaval continues to threaten Moldova. Money is pilfered and stripped from sporting facilities and associations. Still, Trânta is leading a generation of gutsy Moldovans to prominence, and allowing this small nation to punch, grapple and slam above its weight on the global stage.
The one thing that has eluded Moldovan athletes until now is an Olympic gold. This year the odds, as ever, are stacked against them. Yet as giants such as Romanov victoriously hoist prized rams above their square shoulders – to the adulation of crowds across the Republic of Moldova – you sense that this suits them just fine.
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