Georgia has 35 athletes at the Olympic Games, and for all of them the recent days have been surreal. As they are supposed to compete honorably in Beijing, their homeland has been devastated by a far less honorable competition that even more urgently competes for their attention.
On August 13, two Georgian wrestlers won a gold medal at the Games. On the same day in Georgia, the country plunged into the first of three days of official mourning for the still unknown number of people who were killed in battles in and around Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia.
Irakli Tsirekidze was one of those Georgian wrestlers. Tsirekidze competed in judo (90 kilogram) and ironically, to get to the final he competed in the semifinals against Russian wrestler Ivan Pershin. RFE/RL's Georgian Service asked Tsirekidze if the match against the Russian held any heightened significance, given the situation in the Caucasus.
"When you see so many people supporting you, when you see how much joy you can bring to your compatriots, you have to try your best and I really did," Tsirekidze says. "I am glad that at this time of hardship I was able to make my small contribution to positively influencing the general mood. I tried hard and it did pay off."
Georgian Manuchar Kvirkvelia won the gold in Greco-Roman (74 kilograms) just 30 minutes before Tsirkekidze won his medal. Kvirkvelia expressed the mixed emotions that all the athletes on the Georgian team must be feeling during these Olympic Games, though for Kvirkvelia there is a special reason his thoughts are never far from home.
"[By our victory] we did not just bring honor to our country but also demonstrated that even becoming Olympic champion does not make us happy if we have no peace in our homeland," Kvirkvelia says. "We did not need to talk much, everyone saw it. As for the option of withdrawing from the Games, I am one who wants to get back home as soon as possible, since my wife is awaiting our second child right now."
Kvirkvelia's coach Begi Darchia spoke about the challenge of keeping Kvirkvelia's concentration on immediate matters in Beijing.
"Of course, there was immense mental pressure and our job was to make the athletes understand that they have to fight their fight here, at the Olympic Games," Darchia says. "And I am happy, my pupil did really well, defeated all his opponents and became one of the most worthy champions."
Both Tsirekidze and Kvirkvelia held black ribbons of mourning in their hands when accepting their medals.
Some might say that any member of the Georgian team competing in the Olympic Games is a victor because they all must overcome the mental turmoil they are experiencing about news from their homeland. And added to that is the fact all the Georgian athletes were very close to not competing at all in these games. Georgia's first lady, President Mikheil Saakashvili's Dutch wife Sandra Roelofs, was attending the games and had to make this heartbreaking announcement to athletes as Russian troops drove into Georgian territory.
"It is obvious that nobody will be able to stay here any longer," Roelofs says. "Some members of the team have somebody wounded or even dead among their relatives. Everyone is concerned about their families, their country and, I think, it is a very natural decision. And my husband was informed about such a mood in the delegation."
The head of Georgia's Olympic Committee, Gogi Topadze, said he and other Georgian Olympic officials went to see IOC President Jacques Rogge to explain the Georgian national team might have to withdraw entirely from the games.
"We went to see the president of the IOC, Mr. Rogge, and briefed him about the situation. He earnestly asked us not to withdraw. Otherwise we could have serious problems with the participation at the London Olympics in 2012," Topadze recalls. "We told him that some of our athletes have lost relatives, friends, or neighbors. Three of our sportsmen are from Gori, which had been bombarded on that very day. They did not even know, whether their parents and relatives were alive."
In interviews with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, none of the Georgian athletes said they harbored any ill feelings toward members of the Russian team, or indicated that there was any extra sense of satisfaction at defeating a Russian opponent, or any extra sadness at losing to a Russian.
Russia's Natalia Paderina (left) Georgia's Nino Salukvadeze pose on the winners' podium in Beijing
In fact, one of the most touching moments of the games came near the start when the medals for women's pistol shooting were awarded.
Earlier in the Olympics, Georgian pistol markswoman Nino Salukvadze, competing for the sixth time in Olympic Games, placed third in Beijing taking the bronze medal behind Russia's Natalia Paderina's silver medal. The two women stood on the podiums as behind them the Russian and Georgian flags were raised. After the medals were awarded they went to each other and embraced, sharing a moment of victory for both of them that came at a terrible time for relations between their countries.