Beijing Olympics

russia, georgia, volleyball
Natacha Pisarenko/AP
Russia's Natalya Uryadova, right, walks away as Georgia's Cristine Santanna, center, and
Andrezza Martins hug during a beach volleyball match at the Beijing 2008 Olympics. (AP)

Is Russia–Georgia Hostility Carrying Over to the Olympics?

August 14, 2008 11:53 AM
by Denis Cummings
Volleyball players representing Russia and Georgia exchanged insults in a postmatch press conference, a stark contrast to the sportsmanship shown by the countries’ air rifle shooters.

Caucasus War Touches Beijing

On Wednesday, Russia faced Georgia in women’s beach volleyball in a match that would eliminate the loser from the tournament. Georgia won the match two sets to one and the opponents hugged afterward, but their moods changed in the postmatch press conference.

Commenting on the conflict in Georgia, Russian player Natalia Uryadova said, “It is very stupid for Georgia to start a war with Russia because we are very big and they are very small, but that is always the way in history with Georgia.”

Uryadova also snapped that Georgia’s volleyball players are not Georgian and thus do not understand the war, with teammate Alexandra Shiryaeva adding that the Georgian players did not even know the name of the Georgian president.

The Georgian players—Cristine Santanna and Andrezza Chagas—are Brazilians who became Georgian citizens to compete in the Olympics. Santanna replied that she did know the president, adding, “I feel Georgian. I’ve got a Georgian and a Brazilian passport and we did this for the Georgian people. I really didn’t want this situation between the players. I respect them. I don’t want this to be a war between us.”
The dispute came just days after two Russian and Georgian air rifle shooters hugged on the medal stand, earning international praise for epitomizing the Olympic spirit despite the violence between their home countries.

Although spectators have often attached added significance to Olympic events based on current political issues, it is rare for the tensions to manifest on the field of play. When it happened Wednesday, most observers mocked the petty feud between the bikini-clad athletes.

“It is hardly an original thought to say that a leisure activity such as beach volleyball does not deserve to be called a sport, writes The Guardian’s Lawrence Donegan, “but somehow its juxtaposition with the deadly business of war made its absurdities even more luminous.”

Background: The Georgian conflict and the Olympics

On Friday, as Russian and Georgian athletes were marching at the opening ceremonies for the Olympics, Russian tanks were rolling into Georgia’s South Ossetia region. The Georgian Olympic Committee considered pulling out of the Olympics, but decided to remain on the advice of President Mikhail Saakashvili.

The Georgian and Russian delegations are rooming near each other in Olympic Village, but there were no conflicts. “We know it is the Olympic games, and all of us sportsmen … want everything to be normal,” said team spokesman Giorgi Tchanishvili.
On Sunday, Natalia Paderina of Russia and Nino Salukvadze of Georgia finished second and third in the women’s 10-meter air pistol competition. They exchanged hugs and a kiss on the medal stand and were praised for their sportsmanship.

“Let’s hear it for the girls, who with an embrace and a kiss on the cheek showed the world that the Olympic ideal, perhaps a flicker, not a flame, cannot be extinguished,” wrote Bloomberg’s Scott Soshnick. “We can only hope their leaders are watching, appreciating and downloading the message.”

Historical Context: ‘Blood in the Water’

Though there have been many highly politicized events during the Olympics, such as Jesse Owens’s races in Berlin and the “Miracle on Ice,” political conflict rarely leads to conflict between athletes.

One notable exception came in a 1956 water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union, played during the Hungarian Revolution. News of a massive Russian invasion of Budapest reached the Olympics in Melbourne, where the Hungarian team learned that thousands of their countrymen had been killed in the incursion.
Before a crowd of 5,000 people—mostly Hungarian expatriates—the two teams played a brutal, violent match that left one Hungarian player bloodied. The “Blood in the Water” game was called at halftime with the Hungarians ahead 4-0.

“The game meant so much to us,” said Ervin Zador, who missed the final game with a swollen eye. “We were playing for ourselves, for our families back home, for our country.”

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