By ALAN ROBINSON, AP Sports Writer
BEIJING (AP)”The Olympic wrestling mat is red, yellow and blue, dynamic colors designed to give the athletes a vivid backdrop for their talents. It’s that gray area outside the wrestling circle that discolors what its governing body proudly calls the world’s oldest sport.
Some in the sport say it’s one of the shadiest, too.
Backroom politicking, bribery, corruption, outlandish officiating, even threats of violence are routinely alleged in a sport that is little followed in most countries but, when noticed, seems to have as many bizarre story lines as WWE-style entertainment wrestling.
And when it happens at the Olympics, many unfamiliar with the sport are left wondering what in the world goes on in wrestling.
The most recent allegations came last month, when livid Swedish wrestler Ara Abrahamian walked off the medals podium and dropped his unwanted bronze medal for Greco-Roman 84 kilograms on the mat. Abrahamian blew up when a disputed penalty call wound up deciding his semifinal match against Italian Andrea Minguzzi, who went on to win the gold medal.
“I think the semifinals shows that FILA does not play fair,” Abrahamian said, referring to wrestling’s international governing body. “I don’t deserve to lose. The system is corrupt.”
His coach, Leo Myllar, was equally displeased, saying, “It’s all politics, and it’s all corrupt.”
The International Olympic Committee is investigating, but only to determine if there should be disciplinary action against Abrahamian for his medal-stand exit.
What makes Swedish officials especially leery of this latest loss is that one of FILA’s top vice presidents is Italian, and Minguzzi did nothing internationally”his average finish in five world-level championships was 27th ” until he suddenly won his country’s first Olympic wrestling gold in 20 years.
In Athens, Abrahamian lost a similarly disputed decision to Russia’s Aleksey Mishin, who won gold there but was upset by Minguzzi in Beijing, as was Abrahamian. After losing in Athens, Abrahamian wrote on his Web site, “The score was 1-1, and that means losing, in case you meet a Russian.”
Abrahamian’s 2004 loss was one reason former FILA board member Pelle Svensson of Sweden resigned, but only after he unsuccessfully attempted to institute measures to begin cleaning up the sport.
What is certain is if there is an Olympics, there will be allegations of misdeeds.
Svensson, a retired judge, complained Thursday during an interview with the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet that he was threatened”he wouldn’t say by whom” following a post-Athens argument that left a Russian wrestling executive with a torn shirt.
In Atlanta, Iranian officials went ballistic after American Kurt Angle won a gold medal in a close, disputed match on his home mat. In Sydney, there were numerous quirky calls. In Athens, Olympic champion Buvaisar Saitiev of Russia and Belarus’ Murad Gaidarov fought as they left the mat, so unhappy was Gaidarov at the officiating.
Americans aren’t immune to FILA-related disputes, either. In the 2003 world freestyle championships”in New York, no less”Eric Guerrero was forcibly removed from the mat when he refused to leave after losing a disputed decision. Heavyweight Daniel Cormier, who is wrestling in Beijing, chased an Iranian wrestler around the mat and refused to shake the referee’s hand when he lost.
And does this sound familiar? In Sydney, American Sammie Henson was so distraught at losing a gold medal he felt was stripped by a terrible call that he tossed his silver medal down a hallway.
The low-scoring sport’s most visible problem is that many officiating calls are subjective and subtle moves and tiebreakers often decide winner and loser. A replay system allows a judge to review a referee’s call, but there is no clear-cut rule when it should be used. It wasn’t in Abrahamian’s match.
In Beijing, it’s obvious who runs amateur wrestling’s big show.
FILA board members and executives sit in plush chairs beside huge displays of flowers a few feet off the mat, immediately behind the mat chairman and judge, and routinely talk among themselves.
Wrestling executives from other countries often stop by to talk, even as matches are going on, and mat giant Russia’s higher-ups seem to be everywhere.
When FILA executive give their rare interviews, they merely praise the sport’s virtues and refuse to be drawn into any discussion about alleged problems.
In Beijing, there are five more days of wrestling to go, and that means plenty of time for more controversy to erupt. And many who feel wronged probably won’t be comforted by all those $100 displays of cut flowers toted matside every day.