Wrestling / Grappling with a grim reality
When one thinks of the name Gotsha Tzitziashvily, it immediately conjures up an image of a rock-hard, muscular Greco-Roman wrestler sporting a blue undershirt while grappling with some of the world's fiercest athletes on a circular mattress.
The last significant memory of him dates back to the Summer Olympics in Athens, Tzitziashvily's third appearance at the Games. His storied career includes a world championship title in the 84-kilogram weight class in 2003. Just a few minutes after he was eliminated from medal contention in Athens by Russia's Alexei Michine, Israel's most accomplished wrestler appeared before the cameras and announced that he would retire. He was later named coach of the national team, an experience that exposed him to the not-so-pleasant side of backroom politics.
"The truth is that I didn't enjoy myself," Tzitziashvily says. "I had a very hard time with the job. At the time I said I wanted to coach for four years, not one year or two years. Under the prevailing circumstances I entered into, I struggled mightily in getting the sport off the ground. The financial situation was difficult. I didn't get a good plan, nor did I get a good salary. I had to put food on the table for my family, so I left after two years and joined the business I'm in now."
Tzitziashvily got a taste of the world of Georgian real estate, yet toward the end of 2009 he began entertaining overtures from his friends in the Israel Wrestling Federation. "The professional coaches who really cared about wrestling, and thought about the good of the athletes, suggested that I enter my name as a candidate for IWF chairman," he says. "When I was an athlete, I didn't even think about this. Judging by what I saw then, I had no desire to come to such an organization."
"I consulted with a few people and ultimately I decided to go for it," he explains. "It really wasn't that easy. I won the election by a very small margin, but I still won."
This is how Israel's legendary wrestler last December became the top official of the sport he so loves, the sport he is now tasked with extricating from the mud. "I knew from the start where I was headed," he says. "I knew that the situation wasn't at all good. I'm recruiting sponsors, who promised to give a little money, and we are waiting on them for a final answer. Other than that we are trying to cover debts we were saddled with and continue working."
"When I was world champion, the IWF budget stood at NIS 2.5 million," Tzitziashvily recalls. "Today, I get just NIS 1.1 million. Our situation right now is just awful - we are not among the top teams in the world. Since 2003, we haven't had any results of note. Our best finish was fifth place in the European Championships. In the meantime, we don't have a younger generation and we are thinking about our next step. We are bringing in good athletes from abroad so they can practice with the national team - we don't just send our athletes abroad to train."
Israel will be represented by seven wrestlers at this week's Senior European Championship in the Azeri capital of Baku. Four of the competitors are Greco-Roman wrestlers while the other three are freestyle grapplers. Budget shortfalls have interrupted preparations for the tournament, and one of the athletes was forced to buy his own plane ticket to Baku. In addition, two coaches on the staff were forced to remain in Israel. Tzitziashvily has departed for Georgia, where the Greco-Roman wrestlers are currently training in preparation for the competition.
It is rare for an Israeli athlete who mastered his sport to assume the top position in that sport's governing body following retirement. Despite the complex set of circumstances facing Tzitziashvily, the Georgian-born IWF chief is convinced he can affect change and prove that the formula is working.
"I know wrestling from A to Z," he says. "This is my field, I grew up in it, and I have a lot of experience. I was on the mattress for many years and I gave this country some nice results. We will do the upmost to solve the monetary issues."
"I can't say what needs to happen in other sports, but it's very good that there is a professional who cares and knows what to do," says Tzitziashvily. "I, along with the panel of coaches working beside me, am doing everything transparently so that all the athletes know the criteria they need to meet in order to take part in competitions."
"We don't have a lot of politics or cronyism here - whoever's good enough will wrestle."
While Tzitziashvily doesn't place too many expectations for this week's Baku tournament, he's hoping that the 2012 Olympic Games could yield surprising results for Israel. "It's hard to believe that athletes like me will suddenly appear and become world champions," he says, "but I hope we'll have athletes who will bring home medals, and there's a good chance we'll have a wrestler representing us in London."
Despite all the question marks, one thing is certain: Given all the wheeler-dealers in suits we have grown accustomed to, it is nice to finally behold a real athlete who has been given supreme authority over his sport and who, at age 36, will try to revive wrestling's more productive past.
"I don't think it can get any worse than it is now," Tzitziashvily says. "It can only get better. Until now, I've enjoyed helping the athletes, coaches and the federation. I'm trying the best I can not to be a politician. I strive to be honest and professional. In sports, you don't need a lot of politics. I have a good group of people here, and I very much hope that we succeed."