Elders sharing Dagestan’s wrestling legacy

Russia’s Freestyle Wrestlers have proved their class by finishing top of the medals table at the European Championships in Serbia. Some of the most prominent members of team have traditionally come from the Republic of Dagestan.

­Zagalav Abdulbekov became a hero in Dagestan after paving the way to Olympic glory at the 1972 Munich games.

He is now 66 years old, but the title of the republic’s first Olympic champion continues to bring him joy, as he’s happy to share the experience with the next generation.

“You cannot find a happier Olympic champion – you know why?” Abdulbekov he said. “I did what I could for my Motherland and have survived to this age without doing harm to anyone. Our Prophet, peace to Him, had lived 63 years. I am 66 – shall I be displeased with life? I have four sons and that’s my greatest legacy.”

Since Zagalav Abdulbekov, Dagestan has produced another 14 Olympic champions in various sports, but mainly in freestyle wrestling.

One of them is the 1980 Moscow Games winner Magomed-Gasan Abushev whose title did not come without controversy, with certain nations claiming he won top honors without any major opposition.

“We went to the annual World Cup that took place in the US in 1981, a year after the Moscow Olympics,” he said. “The message we took there was that – you had boycotted our Olympic games and now the entire Soviet Olympic team had come to you to prove that we are the true champions… and beat them 10-7.”

Well, the world has changed since the fall of the iron curtain and wrestlers from Dagestan have become models of success for nations far beyond Russia.

Due to the enormous internal competition, local athletes and coaches have been exporting their trade and thus wrestling traditions all over the globe.

“Our martial arts school is internationally recognized and coaches from Dagestan work all over the world, from Colombia to Turkey,” Dr. Makhach Vagabov, Dagestan’s spokesman stressed. “They help develop national schools which is a true recognition of Dagestan’s role in wrestling. As for active athletes, well, they also represent foreign teams like Turkey, Croatia, Macedonia, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Ukraine.”

The competition for a place on the Russian national wrestling team is as high as ever in Dagestan.

The Republic’s leadership is naturally keen on continuing this trend, supporting all sports at the grass roots level.  

“We’ve adopted a huge sports development program and passed a special law designed to expand sport and physical training in Dagestan,”
Magomedsalam Magomedov, President of Dagestan, said. “We’ve also implemented a course of action which will help prepare our athletes for the Olympic Games in London. I do hope that the 2012 Summer Games will bring us new winners and champions and not only in wrestling.”


­Freestyle wrestling is paramount in Dagestan and the locals consider it their national pastime. Almost every household in the republic has their kids engaged in some sort of athletic activity, which seems to play one of the biggest roles in their upbringing.

“If a parent tells us their children are failing at school, then we threaten to expel them from wrestling,” Mejid Magomedov, senior freestyle coach at Gamidov wrestling school, told RT. “There can hardly be a stricter punishment for a child than a ban on attending training. So, we maintain contact with parents and that helps us control the children’s school results.”      

The 2000 Sydney Olympic champion, Saigid Murtazaliev, who's now the head of Dagestan’s Pension Fund, confessed that if it wasn’t for sport, he would have never achieved his high political status.

And if he hadn't been so successful after wrestling, he would not have been able to help the sport's future champions.    

“Wrestling has helped me become a respectable person, strengthened my will and character and taught me to respect both elders and juniors,” Murtazaliev said. “I will be devoted to it until the end of my days. Helping to develop wrestling is my holy duty in the face of Allah and kids who want to follow my path. When I was a child I was often hungry because my family had nothing to eat.  I don’t want today’s children to train on empty stomachs.”   

The 2004 Olympic champion Gaidarbek Gaidarbek excelled in Dagestan’s second favorite martial art – boxing. He admitted that a youth spent high in the Caucasus Mountains was the key to his triumph as an athlete.

But now, a resident of a big city, Gaidarbek will ensure that his family’s well-established sports tradition is passed on to future generations.

“We've been promised a new gym since 2004 but we're finally getting it this year,” Gaidarbekov stressed. “The president signed all documents and we will soon open our state of the art Boxing Centre. So far boxers like me have not had such fine conditions.”

Once an athlete makes Dagestan proud, whether at the Olympics or world championships, they're set for life.

However, the unspoken local custom has it that if fortune’s been kind to you, then it must be spread. With traditions like that, the world is bound to soon hear about athletes from this tiny region for many years to come.

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