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Wrestlers' Alleged Beating Reveals Political Underbelly Of Georgian Sports

The allegations center on two-time world champion Luka Kurtanidze (center), who is accused of viciously beating up his deputy, Temur Kazarashvili, as well as prominent wrestler Raindi Abramishvili.
The allegations center on two-time world champion Luka Kurtanidze (center), who is accused of viciously beating up his deputy, Temur Kazarashvili, as well as prominent wrestler Raindi Abramishvili.
Political passions have run high in Georgia since Bidzina Ivanishvili's rise to power in October.

The victory of the Georgian Dream opposition coalition in parliamentary elections and the ensuring appointment of Ivanishvili, a staunch rival of President Mikheil Saakashvili, as prime minister have unleashed a barrage of mudslinging and scandalous revelations.

A violent dispute at Georgia's wrestling federation this week showed that sports, too, are not immune to political infighting.

The scandal engulfing the wrestling federation was sparked by allegations that its new president, two-time world champion Luka Kurtanidze, viciously beat up his deputy, Temur Kazarashvili, as well as prominent wrestler Raindi Abramishvili.

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The two men said Kurtanidze had insulted and assaulted them on the federation's premises after Kazarashvili refused to bow to his demands to fire a number of wrestling coaches.

Kurtanidze, a longtime Ivanishvili supporter, is widely seen as seeking to purge the federation of its Saakashvili-friendly members.

'Seeing A Backlash'

"Over the past seven or eight years, people who backed the government had been appointed to all kinds of posts and, whenever possible, others had been fired," says Gaga Nizharadze, a prominent sociologist. "Now we are seeing a backlash that is just as bad."

Kurtanidze says political meddling and infighting are common in all major sports in Georgia, with perhaps the exception of rugby.

Elguja Berishvili: "Deep psychological trauma"
Elguja Berishvili: "Deep psychological trauma"
The latest dispute has nonetheless shocked Georgians and dealt a severe blow to the wrestling federation's standing as the country prepares to host the European Wrestling Championships in March.

Although the beating was reportedly witnessed by children who had been training at the time of the incident, Kurtanidze has fiercely rejected the accusations.

At a media briefing on January 31, he accused Kazarashvili of lying and claimed both men had been drunk -- a charge later disproved by doctors who examined the pair after the incident.

"Now what do you think? If I had physically assaulted the man you saw, Temur Kazarashvili, what condition would he be in now?" Kurtanidze told reporters. "The man in question has some kind of virus-related problem with his eye, and he may have bumped into something in the dark and gotten bruised."

Special Commission Created

Kurtanidze's somewhat clumsy attempt to clear his name has only escalated the conflict.

An investigation was launched and Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, also a close ally of Ivanishvili, promised to get to the bottom of the alleged incident.

The Sports and Youth Affairs Ministry even created a special commission to look into the case.

The incident has bitterly divided the wrestling community, with many athletes actively lobbying for Kurtanidze to step down.

Gaga Nizharadze: "Now we are seeing a backlash"
Gaga Nizharadze: "Now we are seeing a backlash"
"Luka Kurtanidze should resign," says Nugzar Skhireli, the former head coach of Georgia's youth team in freestyle wrestling. "Otherwise, he will face strong resistance from the wrestling community, both sportsmen and trainers."

Meanwhile, the allegations leveled against Kurtanidze's have raised fresh questions over his mental state.

Kurtanidze was severely beaten during an anti-Saakashvili protest in Tbilisi in May 2011 and some claim the ordeal has left the Olympic champion with deep psychological scars.

The athlete has since been known for his eccentric behavior, which has included a stint as a would-be Orthodox monk and a nude photo shoot posing as sculptor August Rodin's famous "Thinker."

"If we look back at the events of May 26, Luka Kurtanidze, as well as [five-time world chess champion] Nona Gaprindashvili, actively took part in those protests. That was indeed politics," says Elguja Berishvili, vice president of the Georgian National Olympic Committee. "He received a deep psychological trauma back then, which he has spoken and written about on several occasions. And it seems that this incident is impairing his ability to make decisions."

Sports And Politics

The controversy involving Kurtanidze once again shows how deeply ties run between sports and politics in Georgia.

In 2007, the country's football federation came under scrutiny after its new president resigned just hours after being elected.

Saakashvili, the rumors go, had been displeased with the election's result and had ordered a rerun that eventually reinstated the former football chief.

Last year Betkil Shukvani, a popular Georgian judoka, claimed he had been insulted and berated by then-Sports Minister Lado Vardzelashvili and lawmaker Giorgi Udesiani for publicly supporting Ivanishvili.

Shukvani says the altercation took place on a plane carrying Georgia's delegation to the London Summer Olympics and had left him "devastated."

The 24-year-old athlete said the incident had affected his performance at his first Olympic competition, causing him to be eliminated in just the second round.

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