Tedeyev and Arsen Fadzayev, a fellow Ossetian and two-time gold medalist who stepped down as the Russian freestyle coach to make a comeback in Atlanta, work with wrestlers of all ages in the dim little Spartak gym in Vladikavkaz. In December some 30 to 40 wrestlers at a time were on the mats, grinding each other into submission. Four ropes hung at one end of the gym with wrestlers climbing to the top and sliding back down. A fat tractor tire and a sledgehammer were their bodybuilding tools. This was no high-tech operation filled with digital-readout muscle machines. Champions of the past simply taught challengers of today the moves and holds.
"We could have better surroundings," Tedeyev said, "but this is the best atmosphere for wrestling...spartan."
Every day a wrestling official would arrive with a box of money, rubles in huge stacks like the ones you see in comic strips. He would call several wrestlers to his side, consult a list and hand out the money. The amounts were not so big—$50 to $100 worth of devalued rubles makes an impressive pile—but the sight of the money changing hands was startling. Though the official explained that the payments were for performance, I didn't understand. What performance? When? What were the rates? There was much I didn't understand.
The 31-year-old Khadartsev, for instance. A squarely built hulk with a prominent chin and battered nose and ears, he was clearly more than a wrestler. In addition to working out daily, he was running a brewery that manufactured 13 products, from beer to vodka to lemonade. He was a local presence: part businessman, part superstar, part union-buster. He drove a black Mercedes one day, a Chevy Blazer the next. He spoke, and people moved into action. "This is my interpreter," he said, introducing a young woman in his modern, newly decorated offices at the brewery. "Tell me if she speaks English well. If she doesn't, I will fire her."
The woman interpreted the words. Very well. She laughed.
I had read that various sports federations were part of the new Mafia that took control of many activities in Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Was the wrestling federation an example? Khadartsev said he hoped to be the president of Ossetia in 10 years. The current president, Akhsarbek Galazov, has long been close to the wrestling community. Ruslan Geoev, the head of the Northern Ossetia Wrestling Federation, was running for a spot in the Russian parliament, the Duma. Was wrestling more than just a sport? This was something else I did not know.
A visitor from the U.S. was trying to get an international phone line in the Intourist hotel one day. He was told a line would not be available for two weeks. Soslan Andiev, a freestyle super heavyweight gold medalist in 1976 and 1980 and now the president of the Ministry of Sport for Northern Ossetia, heard the conversation and picked up the phone. He told the operator his name and position and demanded a line. A half hour or so passed before he handed the phone to the American. The line was open.
"Why is the sport so big here?" I asked Tedeyev one night as he drove the dark and bumpy streets along the Terek River in Vladikavkaz, whose name means "power of the Caucasus." "Why is it so important?"
"This is a place of tradition," he explained. "The young ones watch the older ones succeed. They want to do the same thing. From World War II until the last 10 years, there really was no other sport here except wrestling. Now there is soccer too, but wrestling is still important. Since the breakup some of our wrestlers have gone to other countries: Germany. Ukraine. The coach in Ukraine says to send him any wrestlers who do not make the Russian team. They will be his stars."
He continued driving. He described a town, somewhere near the border, that had been raided a few years ago, its citizens killed, its buildings burned. He said the town's ruins had been left in place as a memorial. Maybe we could go and see it.