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Stevens: Russia ruled Worlds, but fell short on organization

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Updated: October 8, 2010

Sandy Stevens

By Sandy Stevens

The 2010 World Wrestling Championships took place in Sept. 6-12 in Moscow, Russia.        I think.
I’m not referring to the scarcity of U.S. medals but rather, from a fan’s perspective, the differences between the Russian version of a major tournament and what we expect and experience at home.
A year before an NCAA Championships, for example, host organizations begin trumpeting the event with ticket and hotel information. Welcome signs greet fans and athletes at airports, hotel lobbies and area businesses. We like knowing we’re not just another event in a big city.
Yet in Russia, where wrestling in king, no signs for this World tournament appeared at either Moscow airport; a total of one city banner was spotted on the 90-minute drives from the airports and one small poster sat in the lobby of the hotel that hosted the U.S. team.
But in nearby restaurants and other area hotels (even the one where most U.S. fans stayed), not a word; in fact, on our 10-minute walk to Olympisky Stadium, we saw no publicity until we literally arrived at the arena doors.
U.S. tour coordinator Stephana Del la Torre of Global Gurus was promised in May that she’d know ticket prices in a week, but the organizing committee didn’t set the ticket costs until August; three weeks before the tournament began!
Security was much tighter than what we’re used to in the U.S. Our tickets were verified at three places on the way in. Bags were screened and opened (people with larger bags were turned away to check them outside the arena). Drinks were sold in bottles, but only cups were allowed in the seating area.
Tickets also had to be machine-scanned as we left the day’s first session, requiring fans to file out a door one-by-one past a security team. If you were brave or foolish enough to endure the initial crush of shoving people, just getting out the door still took about 10 minutes.
On the day following his competition, frustrated U.S. freestyler J.D. Bergman stood in the main lobby after the first session.
“I don’t have my ticket, so they won’t let me out,” he said. “I just want to leave!”
And yes, he was wearing his credentials and his USA warm-ups.
Can you imagine American fans tolerating such poor organization, let alone this unsafe scenario, for very long?
I arrived in Moscow in time to see the Elena Pirozhkova win a silver medal at 63 kilos for the United States and teammate Tatiana Padilla capture the 55-kilo bronze. I’d expected a somewhat smaller turnout for the women ‘s competition. Iran, for example, where wrestling is the national sport, sponsors no women’s wrestling.
But the day also featured the men’s 55K competition. Still, attendance was sparse, with a noticeable absence of women in the stands. In fact, the number of female U.S. fans might have exceeded the total from other countries and we American women were certainly the only ones cheering.
Following each weight class’s bronze and gold matches in Greco-Roman and women’s competition, awards were presented on a large, mostly unadorned stage at the end of the arena. Before each ceremony, a troop of women, expert at flipping their hair and shaking their booties, performed dances (to American music) that I seriously suspect were copied from the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.
For each appearance, the dancers changed costumes, each skimpier than the last. Surprisingly, the predominately male crowd seemed underwhelmed by the exhibition.
With the bulk of the freestyle competition on Saturday and Sunday came a huge jump in attendance. By the final session, the arena was jammed, mostly with Russians, including many more women and children.
During freestyle, most of us U.S. fans’ tickets were in the nosebleed section, about seven rows from the very top of the stadium, and we struggled to see the scoreboards on all four mats.
We also struggled to know what was happening, because no such thing as a program was ever sold, and no screens provided information.
A couple people shared brackets they’d printed out at the hotel from TheMat.com. But the English announcer said only who was stepping on a mat and who won. We usually had no indication of when and where to expect matches; again, something fans in the U.S. wouldn’t accept.
The attendance wasn’t the only factor that showed the difference in the prestige of men’s freestyle wrestling in Russia compared to Greco-Roman and women’s competition.
Young women dressed in traditional Russian costumes carried cards listing a weight category as they led freestyle finalists to the mat. Eight or more decorated trees now decked the awards stage and a huge white bear — taller than two humans — lumbered nearby.
Yet I smiled as I heard the background songs during competition. The concept of playing music during matches was first introduced to the wrestling world at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta by producer extraordinaire Don Blasingame of Oklahoma.
Doing so was a huge gamble, but when Russian Greco-Roman legend Alexander Karelin told the media he liked it, it was a lock. Now it’s expected.
And at the 2010 World Championships, it was usually American music.

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