Chechen wrestlers retake heritage from wars' wreckage

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The Chechen boys and the young Chechen men filed into the gym just before 3 p.m. There was no locker room. Beneath a huge picture of Akhmad Kadyrov, the Chechen president slain four years ago, they slipped out of street clothes on the bleachers and then moved to the gym floor.

Soon they were in motion, shuffling in a wide circle, twisting their backs and loosening muscles in their chests, shoulders, quadriceps and arms.

It intensified. First they finished a regimen of neck and abdominal stretches, and then began somersaults, cartwheels and sprints on their knees. It ended with hand-walking and flips, in which the most agile members of the squad landed neatly on their feet not far from the prayer rug, in the corner, which faced toward Mecca.

This was the daily razminka at the Akhmad Kadyrov Sports Complex, the wrestlers' warm-up, part of the return of a Chechen athletic culture that survived nearly 15 years of war. It was held in a sports complex built on the grounds of the place where Kadyrov had been killed by a bomb.

In Chechnya, the tiny and mostly sealed-off land where male fitness and martial courage are celebrated and codes of honor are passed down through generations, sports that pit one man against another in a contest of strength, skill and stamina have an intensive following. Young Chechen men learn judo, and to box and to wrestle. In wrestling circles in particular, Chechens are regarded as among the best in the world.

But like many chapters in the story of Chechnya's long and often bitter relationship with Russia, the history of Chechen wrestling is filled with frustration, distrust, betrayal and loss.

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