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Remote village catches Olympic fever

By Gennady Fyodorov in Yakutsk, Russia
August 05, 2004 12:51 IST
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In a remote village in eastern Siberia, the Kontoyev family are anxiously preparing to follow the Athens Olympics.

The Kontoyevs are the pride of the small Yakut village of Magarass, hidden in a vast Siberian forest nearly 9,000 km east of Moscow and seven time zones away from Athens.

That means the villagers must stay up almost all night to catch a glimpse of Olympic competition, but it will not stop them following local hero German Kontoyev as he takes on the world's best wrestlers in faraway Greece.

Stepan and Varvara Kontoyev have three sons who have all been world champions of one sort or another.

German, the eldest at 32, was the world freestyle wrestling champion in 2001 when his younger brother Alexander finished third in the same 55-kg weight class. Alexander, 23, was world junior champion the year before while Stanislav, 27, was twice world junior champion in draughts.

"They are truly a unique family," Ivan Pavlov, director of a local sports school, told Reuters.

"I don't think there is another family in Yakutia or even the whole of Russia which produced three world champions."

Freestyle wrestling is by far the most popular sport in Yakutia, a huge but sparsely populated Siberian region which spreads from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Chinese border in the south and is nearly six times bigger than France.

With temperatures plunging from 30 degrees Celsius in summer to minus 60 in winter, it was the place where revolutionaries and criminals were sent into exile in Tsarist times and later became the site of numerous Soviet labour camps.

DIAMOND PRODUCER

Now Yakutia is mostly known for its huge mineral resources and is the world's second largest producer of diamonds, gold and other precious metals.

The regional population of less than a million, about 300,000 of whom live in the capital Yakutsk, has produced several world and European champions in freestyle wrestling.

Two Yakut natives, Roman Dmitriyev and Pavel Pinigin, won Olympic golds in 1972 and 1976 respectively.

Although he now represents Belarus, German Kontoyev, who has been training in the Crimea along with other wrestlers from the former Soviet republics, is hoping to emulate his fellow countrymen in Athens.

"It was very difficult to break into the Russian team at the time, so German decided to switch countries in 1995," said Kontoyev's coach Nikolai Rozhin.

"He finished fourth at the Sydney Olympics but became world champion a year later and now has a good chance to win a medal."

Rozhin said Alexander also had a chance of going to Athens but failed to make the Russian team due to an ankle injury.

When asked for a common trait among Yakut wrestlers, Rozhin named their stamina: "It comes from our way of life -- hard peasant labour from dawn to dusk."

Most Yakuts still engage in hunting, fishing and raising cattle -- just like their predecessors did for centuries before the Russians came in 1632.

"We're very much like the Russians now, only our eyes are a bit narrower than theirs," Rozhin said. "We have the same mentality, Russian names and surnames, we're friendly and hospitable and also like to drink vodka just like them."

FIRST COACH

Stepan Kontoyev, a good wrestler and draughts player in his day, was his sons' first coach.

"Since they were kids, German and Alexander have been small and lightweight, so I decided they would be good in wrestling. Stanislav was big and slow since birth and I thought he would be better suited for draughts," he said, proudly showing off his sons' trophies in the family's wooden house.

Stepan said the family's athletic prowess came from their ancestry and healthy lifestyles.

"All of us were active in various sports," he said. "I was a multi-sport athlete in my youth and now, at 59, I still compete in cross-country skiing. My wife was also a good skier."

German's grandmother is 85 and lives by herself in a tiny village some 100 km away from the rest of the family.

"She is still active and does everything around the house herself. Until recently she would go into the forest to hunt elk and Arctic hare," Stepan said.

With financial help from the local administration, the Kontoyev parents will fly to Greece to watch their son compete while the rest of the village will watch on television.

While most adults work in the fields, local boys race bikes and chase girls on the village's dusty roads.

"There's not much else to do here," said 17-year-old Gavril Skryvykin. "Sport is the one thing everyone does.

"So when the Olympics come around everyone will watch it, especially with German competing.

"He is a big hero for us and we wish him well. We'll have to stay until five or six in the morning to watch it like we did during Euro 2004 in Portugal. But it only comes once every four years, so we wouldn't miss it for anything."

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Gennady Fyodorov in Yakutsk, Russia
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