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Richard C. Phelan
April 21, 1958
The Russian wrestling squad—the first Soviet athletes ever to compete in this country—have been discovering America, and vice versa
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April 21, 1958

The Meeting Of East & West

The Russian wrestling squad—the first Soviet athletes ever to compete in this country—have been discovering America, and vice versa

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Atwa constellation circled Tulsa Airport last Wednesday, came in for a smooth landing and deposited eight astonished Russian wrestlers at the edge of the runway. The cause of the Russians' astonishment lay on an adjoining airstrip—dozens of B-47 jet bombers lined up outside a Douglas Aircraft plant.

"Why do you let us see things like this?" one of the Russians asked. "Why not?" an American said.

The Russians shook their heads—amazed not so much by the aircraft as by the freedom of any Tulsa traveler to look at them. And that was only the beginning.

At the foot of the ramp the Russians were greeted by Miss Tulsa, a pretty blonde in a sack dress, and by Tulsa Mayor George E. Norvell. The mayor presented the leader of the Russian party, Mikhail Peslyak, with a gilded foot-long key to the city. Then it was Tulsa's turn to stare. Bulging Mikhail Peslyak accepted the key with a flashing smile and created a new local tradition by stuffing the whole thing into his inner breast pocket.

Thus, last week on a succession of stages and platforms reaching from New York City to Oklahoma, the first team of Soviet athletes ever to compete in the United States discovered America, and America discovered them. By the end of the week, on the wrestling mats of Norman and Stillwater, Okla., the Russian champions established their superiority—in the Olympic freestyle version of the sport—over most of America's AAU champions. But that was only part of the week's meeting of East and West.

The Russians' performances on the mat were their most eloquent message to America, for not one of them speaks more than five or six words of English. "Good morning," "Thank you," and "Very good" are just about all they can manage. The same is true of the three men who accompanied them—a coach, a trainer and Mikhail Peslyak, the sports ministry official who is in charge of the group.

Still, tongue-tied as they were, they made some sort of impression on a fairly large number of people, for wherever they went they were courteous, curious, well-behaved and highly noticeable. They are graduated in size like the pipes of a calliope, as all wrestling teams must be, from the wiry little Georgian (114½ pounds) named Meriyan Tsalkalamanidze to Otar Kandelaki, the monumental 6-foot 3-inch heavyweight (219 pounds). They all wore ankle-length topcoats and high-domed felt hats, and nearly all of them carried cameras. Three, including the coach, are named Vladimir, and four wear Groucho Marx moustaches.

Their curious itinerary (New York-Tulsa-Norman-Stillwater-Tulsa-New York and then home to the Soviet Union this week)was dictated by the fact that while the Russian government is paying for most of their transportation, American wrestlers are paying for their food, housing and entertainment. Though they competed in Norman and Stillwater, the Russians spent most of their Okla-homa visit in Tulsa because the facilities to take care of them, several businessmen who are underwriting their visit and a number of the wrestlers, coaches and other Oklahomans concerned with them are there.

In their three Oklahoma matches the Russians were scheduled to meet American wrestlers chosen after the recent National AAU meet in San Francisco. Most, but not all, of the Americans who faced them were winners in the AAU meet. One was unable to finance the trip from Los Angeles to Oklahoma to wrestle a Russian who had come all the way from Moscow.

Flying from New York to Tulsa, the Russians had brief stops in Washington, D.C. and St. Louis, which gave them a chance to write miscellaneous facts in the little notebooks most of them carry—how high is the Washington monument? What is the population of St. Louis? At what altitude were we flying? What was the name of the gentleman—some sort of musician—who was pointed out to us in the Washington Airport? (It was Louis Armstrong.)

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