Olympic Mood: Thousands of miles away, a gesture of reconciliation

Mike Rowbottom
Monday 11 August 2008 00:00
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A Georgian and a Russian embraced on the podium here yesterday, demonstrating that although the Olympic Truce may have carried no weight with their warring countries, it holds good within the sporting arena.

Georgia's Nino Salukvadze, bronze medallist in the women's 10m air pistol event, hugged the Russian silver medallist Natalia Paderina during the medal ceremony and insisted that the enmity between their two nations did not exist in Beijing. "We live in the 21st century after all and we shouldn't stoop so low as to wage war," said Salukvadze. "There should be no hatred between athletes and people in general. We'll leave this to the politicians to figure out."

She said she had been unable to sleep the previous night because she was worried about her friends and family, but despite the turmoil unfolding back home, she netted Georgia's first medal of these games. "If the world were to draw any lessons from what I did, there would never be any wars," she said.

Commenting on her Russian opponent, she said: "When it comes to sports we will always remain friends and nothing will affect our friendship, even in such a scary event as shooting." Paderina added: "We are friends indeed. We've been shooting together for a long time. We don't get mixed up in political things. Sport is beyond politics."

There had been discussion among the 35-strong Georgian team about whether to pull out of the Beijing Games. Two of the weightlifters hail from South Ossetia, the breakaway province at the heart of the conflict between Moscow and Tbilisi. But after the team received encouragement from Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili, they decided to stay on.

The Russian team also confirmed it will remain in Beijing. "We have our own point of view about what is going on, but we think this is a matter for the UN not the Beijing Olympics," said Victor Khotochkin, the first vice president of the Russian Olympic Committee.

There will be a further test of sportsmanship on Wednesday when the two countries are due to meet each other in the beach volleyball competition. Such a pairing has uncomfortable echoes with the infamously violent water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics after the Russians had put down the Hungarian uprising.

Levan Akhvlediani, president of the Georgian Volleyball Federation, said: "If we need to, we are ready to go back to Georgia like soldiers, but after the President has asked us to stay here we have to respect this."

But sports reporters from Tbilisi spoke of the angst surrounding Team Georgia. "The situation is terrible," said the Georgian journalist Kakhaber Beridze. "All of us here – journalists, officials, competitors – we are very nervous. I don't know why the Russians hate us. Nobody expected what has happened. It has exploded. For us, the Olympic Games are second now."

An International Olympic Committee spokeswoman said the decision for the teams to remain in the Games reflected the Olympic spirit. "The IOC believes this is the right decision, especially for the athletes, as it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them."

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