BARCELONA, Spain — I knew these Olympics were open to the pros. I didn’t know that meant pro wrestling.
But after what I just saw, anything is possible. After what I just saw, I half-expect Hulk Hogan to battle the Iron Sheik for the gold medal.
What I just saw, in Olympic wrestling, featured two Russians bouncing on their rear ends, one Russian slamming his shoes on the mat, a screaming Bulgarian, a group of Iranians spitting and throwing caps, and an American wearing Spandex and flexing his muscles while circling the floor, growling,
“I AM THE CHAMPION! I AM THE CHAMPION!”
It’s the Olympics or the WWF, one or the other.
Did I mention the Russian Mafia threatening the judge?
Wait. This gets complex. Why don’t I give you a play-by- play, as it happened. Ready? . . .
OK. It’s high drama time. The gold-medal wrestling match at 180.5 pounds. On one side is American Kevin Jackson, who grew up in Lansing, lives in Iowa and looks like a middle linebacker with no hair. On the other side is the Russian — or ex- Russian or ex-Soviet or whatever we call them now — Elmadi Zhabrailov, who looks like John Stockton on steroids.
They wrestle. It’s a close match. It’s 0-0 with time running out. Suddenly the Russian gets Jackson in a grab move, has him on his hip, and Jackson is trying to retaliate but is also bouncing towards the out-of-bounds line. He gets there. The referee whistles, separates them and awards no points.
Here’s where the fun starts.
Out storms the hulking Russian wrestling coach, Ivan Yarygin — let’s call him Ivan the Terrible. Alongside him is a smaller assistant; we’ll call him Mr. Excitable. And they’re both out on the mat, waving their arms, screaming at the judges that their guy should be given a point, that Jackson was running
away. Mr. Excitable drops to his butt and begins bouncing, like a baby, to imitate Jackson, which is pretty dangerous, because Jackson is standing right behind him. Meanwhile, Ivan the Terrible is gesturing wildly at the referee, as if to say, “Give us a point, or I will eat you for breakfast!”
All this, remember, while the match is still in progress.
Wait. We’re just getting started.
‘I chew you!’
Somehow they get these two back to their seats, and the match goes to sudden-death overtime. The crowd is roaring. And wouldn’t you know it? Jackson completes a takedown move and the referee signals one point. It’s over! American wins!
“I KILL YOU! I EAT YOU! I CHEW YOU!” Ivan the Terrible seems to be screaming as he charges the referee. The defeated wrestler, Elmadi, is screaming, too, and suddenly he plops down in front of the judges and he’s not moving. He’s going to sit there, as long as it takes, until they change their minds. What’s he gonna miss back home? Another revolution?
Meanwhile, Mr. Excitable, the assistant, who, by the way, is wearing green paisley shorts and a hat full of Olympic pins — I know the ex-Soviets are hurting for team uniforms, but there’s gotta be something better than this — he suddenly takes off his shoes and begins slamming them on the mat. Over and over. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! And he’s screaming in Russian! I can guess what he’s saying: “WE WILL BURY YOU!” Isn’t that what Krushchev said at the UN?
Hey. You get a good phrase, you stick with it.
By now, the crowd is half-cheering, half-booing. A group of Iranians begin
to shower the mat with caps and bottles. Some spit. Others whistle. And in the middle of all this, Kevin Jackson, who just won a gold medal, I think, is trying to celebrate the way any normal, red-blooded American who hasn’t eaten real food in weeks would do: He is circling the ring like a grizzly bear, arms high, yelling, “WHOO! I’M THE OLYMPIC CHAMPION! WHOO!”
A protest is filed.
We pause for this commercial break.
‘We have our ways, too’
OK. We’re back. Now we’re outside the jury room, where the judges are reviewing the tape. With us is Ivan the Terrible, the grumbling Russian coach, and Mr. Excitable, who looks a lot like the losing wrestler, Elmadi, and now we know why: He is his older brother. Whoa! No wonder he’s upset. I just hope he doesn’t take his shoes off again, because it’s damn hot in here and I doubt we can take the smell.
Out comes the jury. One member, wearing a blue sports coat, gives the thumbs-down sign. The protest is denied.
“YOU SAW IT! I SAW IT!” screams Ivan the Terrible. “I want to know what is in this referee’s brains?”
If he’s still in the building, probably very little.
But you needn’t worry about that. The referee, a Bulgarian named Todor Groudev — Todor the Bulgarian, beautiful, no? — already has a bad history with the former Soviets over a previous match. The way I figure it, old Todor is out of here already, on the next flight to Plovdiv.
So the jury has to take the grief. The poor guy in the sports coat is trying to explain, in a nice calm voice, why the jury cannot overturn the decision. “Look, the Russians feel they are right. The Americans feel they are right. We can only look at the tape.”
This makes sense to me. But then, up steps this small, seedy-looking guy, who says he is Russian and demands to know what nationality the jury member is.
“I am Italian,” the juror says.
And this is what the Russian says: “We know you Sicilians and your Mafia ways. But we have our ways, too.”
Then he bangs his fist into his palm and gives the juror a glare.
I figure that’s Russian for “You sleep with the fishes.” Shrink those shoes
Let’s jump to the medal ceremony. Such drama! The place is buzzing! Will the Russian show up? Will he accept his silver? The music begins, and out comes Jackson and the bronze medalist, an Iranian — but no Russian. The crowd hoots and jeers. He’s not coming! He’s refusing the medal! . . .
But wait. Out of the far right corner of the building . . . yes . . . here comes Elmadi, being dragged by two of his teammates. He is weeping, shaking his head, as if to say, “No, really, I can’t accept that silver medal.” But he keeps walking toward the medal stand. He buries his head, turns back, then continues on, then turns back, then continues on. I swear, I saw this same routine at the end of a James Brown concert once. Except James had a cape.
Meanwhile, poor Kevin Jackson. All he did was wrestle, and now they’re booing him like George Bush. When his name is called as “gold medalist,” the roof almost collapses.
Then Elmadi’s name is called. He steps up, and the well- dressed official tries to put the silver medal around his neck. Elmadi pushes it away. The official, who has no doubt been practicing this move on his wife for months now, is insisting. “I must put it around your neck.”
“Hell with that,” Elmadi is saying.
“Your neck! Let me put it around your neck!”
“No neck! No neck!”
“But I must —
“But I –“
Finally, Elmadi just grabs the thing, and the official rolls his eyes as if to say, “Hey, the guy is a wrestler and I’m a dweeb. What do you want?”
Meanwhile, Elmadi’s brother has — you guessed it — taken off his shoes again, and he is pounding the floor, trying to get people to drown out “The Star-Spangled Banner,” or trying to shrink his size 10s down to size 9s, one or the other. So the crowd begins to stomp its feet, while American fans sing
“the rocket’s red glare.” The Iranians are whistling and booing. Elmadi is bent over, weeping or laughing. Ivan is still screaming. The brother is playing “A Whole Lotta Sole.” The place is like Armageddon, any minute now, the walls cave in. . . .
And that’s it. I guess you have to tune in next week to see the finish. I will tell you that an hour after all this happened, the loser was sitting outside doping control, smoking a cigarette.
Meanwhile, Kevin Jackson was trying to explain his Olympic experience: “It was total chaos. It was ridiculous. It made them look bad. It made their team look bad.
“It really was unprofessional.”
In wrestling? Are you kidding? That’s as close to professional as it gets.