Sunday, October 1, 2000

U.S. wrestlers grapple with bitter defeat.
Brandon Slay and a teammate expected nothing less than gold.
They sulked over silver.

By Frank Fitzpatrick
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY - Suddenly the medals stand became a dungeon for American wrestlers, an arena hallway a venue for venting their frustrations, the silver medal a burden they were doomed to carry forever.

Sammie Henson sprinted off the mat in tears after his defeat last night. He slammed his body against a wall and lay there on his back, wailing in agony and flailing his legs like a dying insect.

Brandon Slay reacted to his 4-0 loss to German Alexander Leipold by twice yanking his arm from the referee's grasp when he tried to raise both wrestlers' hands. The normally upbeat crowd at the Sydney Exhibition Center booed the 24-year-old Penn graduate with a Veterans Stadium-like passion. And both wrestlers, upset with the officiating, sulked visibly throughout medal ceremonies that must have validated the views of anti-Americans around the world.

"Americans," German coach Wolfgang Mitschke said, "can't lose."

The aftermath of gold-medal losses last night by the two U.S. Olympic wrestlers was chaotic, controversial and, at times, childish.

The U.S. contingent will tell you that officiating cost them two gold medals. And the losses only confirmed the feeling of many U.S. wrestlers and coaches that anti-American politics continue to play a part in the sport a decade after the wrestling-crazy Soviet Union dissolved.

"I don't believe it was fair," Slay said. "I don't think I was treated fairly. . . . I believe politics are a huge part of our sport, but I'm not putting any blame on that."

Their victorious opponents insisted the referees were unbiased. One Azerbaijani coach suggested the Americans were selfish to complain since, when the night began, six of their wrestlers were still alive in the competition.

(Kerry McCoy, a Lehigh assistant coach, will wrestle again today in his quest to reach the medal round in the 130-kilogram class. So will Lincoln McIlravy (69 kilograms), Charles Burton (85 kilograms) and Terry Brands (58 kilograms). All of them won matches yesterday.)

Slay was penalized two points for backing away from the standing clinch that now starts the second period of scoreless matches. Then he got hit with another point penalty for grabbing his opponent's fingers.

"The easiest thing in the world is to wrestle with a 3-0 lead," Slay said. "He was just whining like a baby, crying, acting for the officials, hoping they'd give him some points. And they did."

Henson was the aggressor in his 54-kilogram bout with Azerbaijan's Namig Abdullayev. His opponent scored some points because of that, but also repeatedly grabbed the American's singlet (the narrow strap on his jersey), stalled, and at one point had Henson's mouth in his grip.

"Obviously, there were two or three times when the athlete from Azerbaijan grabbed Sammie's singlet to avoid going down," said John Smith, a co-head coach of the U.S. team. "The [Iranian] referee saw it, but he never penalized him."

Under wrestling's byzantine rules, no protests are allowed in medal matches. That, American coaches said, encouraged the kind of tactics Abdullayev employed. When his match ended in a 4-3 loss, Henson ignored the traditional round of handshakes and sprinted toward the locker room in tears, his coaches hurriedly following. They lifted him off the ground and carried him into the locker room.

"You see him come off like that and you know he feels like he was cheated," said Bob Henson, the wrestler's father.

A night earlier, Henson said he didn't "give a crap" about silver or bronze medals. He was still in tears during the medal ceremony, at one point sobbing on the shoulder of an official who presented him the traditional flowers. When he joined the winner and bronze medalist Jee Sung Jang of Korea atop the podium, he looked as if his dog had just died.

Then, during the lap around the arena, when medalists pose for photos and wave to fans, Henson walked several yards in front of his counterparts before departing prematurely. With a towel draped over his head, he fled the arena before the required news conference. "American wrestlers work hard and they want the gold," said Gary Abbott of the U.S. Olympic Committee staff. "And, as you saw, they don't care much about silver and bronze."

During the introductions for his 76-kilogram match, Slay was breathing deeply and hopping. His German foe, in his fourth Olympics, was sedate - at least by wrestling's hyper-intense standards. "He was like a rocket," Mitschke said of Slay.

When the second three-minute period began, the referee lined up the wrestlers to clinch. "That's when things started to get ugly," Slay said.

The Swedish referee kept signaling Slay about moving back from the German's hold. The third warning brought the two-point penalty that clearly upset Slay and allowed Leipold to wrestle defensively the rest of the way.

"His call was a good one," Mitschke said. "The American did not conform to the clinch rules."

What really upset Slay was the fact that Leipold never even got a good hold on him until he had the 3-0 lead and the American was forced to gamble.

"How many technical points have you seen so far [at the Olympics]," U.S. coach Bruce Burnett said. "I can't think of one before this."

Slay, who had forecast an easy victory, angrily slapped away the referee's hand at the match's conclusion.

"I was sickened to my stomach by what just happened," he said. "There wasn't anything serious going through my head."

More composed than Henson on the medal stand. "It was hard for me," Slay said. "If I had thought I had lost fairly, you'd have seen a big smile on my face."

The final four American wrestlers went down to a quick succession of defeats today, too.

Penn State assistant wrestling coach Kerry McCoy and Charles Burton lost tight matches in the quarterfinals. Terry Brands and Lincoln McIlravy, former Iowa wrestlers, lost close decisions in the semifinals and were to wrestle later today for bronze medals.

"They just weren't losses, they were unbelievably tough losses," U.S. co-coach Dan Gable said. "All of them down to the end, all of them close."

The American meltdown on the mat means the only U.S. wrestling gold medal in Sydney was arguably the least likely ever - by Greco-Roman super heavyweight Rulon Gardner, who upset the seemingly unbeatable Alexander Karelin of Russia. Gardner celebrated by carrying the U.S. flag today in the closing ceremonies.

Frank Fitzpatrick's e-mail address is ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com