Atwa constellation circled Tulsa Airport last Wednesday, came in for a smooth landing and deposited eight astonished Russian wrestlers at the edge of the runway. The cause of the Russians' astonishment lay on an adjoining airstrip—dozens of B-47 jet bombers lined up outside a Douglas Aircraft plant.
"Why do you let us see things like this?" one of the Russians asked. "Why not?" an American said.
The Russians shook their heads—amazed not so much by the aircraft as by the freedom of any Tulsa traveler to look at them. And that was only the beginning.
At the foot of the ramp the Russians were greeted by Miss Tulsa, a pretty blonde in a sack dress, and by Tulsa Mayor George E. Norvell. The mayor presented the leader of the Russian party, Mikhail Peslyak, with a gilded foot-long key to the city. Then it was Tulsa's turn to stare. Bulging Mikhail Peslyak accepted the key with a flashing smile and created a new local tradition by stuffing the whole thing into his inner breast pocket.
April 21, 1958
Thus, last week on a succession of stages and platforms reaching from New York City to Oklahoma, the first team of Soviet athletes ever to compete in the United States discovered America, and America discovered them. By the end of the week, on the wrestling mats of Norman and Stillwater, Okla., the Russian champions established their superiority—in the Olympic freestyle version of the sport—over most of America's AAU champions. But that was only part of the week's meeting of East and West.
The Russians' performances on the mat were their most eloquent message to America, for not one of them speaks more than five or six words of English. "Good morning," "Thank you," and "Very good" are just about all they can manage. The same is true of the three men who accompanied them—a coach, a trainer and Mikhail Peslyak, the sports ministry official who is in charge of the group.
Still, tongue-tied as they were, they made some sort of impression on a fairly large number of people, for wherever they went they were courteous, curious, well-behaved and highly noticeable. They are graduated in size like the pipes of a calliope, as all wrestling teams must be, from the wiry little Georgian (114½ pounds) named Meriyan Tsalkalamanidze to Otar Kandelaki, the monumental 6-foot 3-inch heavyweight (219 pounds). They all wore ankle-length topcoats and high-domed felt hats, and nearly all of them carried cameras. Three, including the coach, are named Vladimir, and four wear Groucho Marx moustaches.
Their curious itinerary (New York-Tulsa-Norman-Stillwater-Tulsa-New York and then home to the Soviet Union this week)was dictated by the fact that while the Russian government is paying for most of their transportation, American wrestlers are paying for their food, housing and entertainment. Though they competed in Norman and Stillwater, the Russians spent most of their Okla-homa visit in Tulsa because the facilities to take care of them, several businessmen who are underwriting their visit and a number of the wrestlers, coaches and other Oklahomans concerned with them are there.
In their three Oklahoma matches the Russians were scheduled to meet American wrestlers chosen after the recent National AAU meet in San Francisco. Most, but not all, of the Americans who faced them were winners in the AAU meet. One was unable to finance the trip from Los Angeles to Oklahoma to wrestle a Russian who had come all the way from Moscow.
Flying from New York to Tulsa, the Russians had brief stops in Washington, D.C. and St. Louis, which gave them a chance to write miscellaneous facts in the little notebooks most of them carry—how high is the Washington monument? What is the population of St. Louis? At what altitude were we flying? What was the name of the gentleman—some sort of musician—who was pointed out to us in the Washington Airport? (It was Louis Armstrong.)
These questions, and some hundreds of others, were answered by a Russian-speaking American named Alex Malyshev, an interpreter assigned to the Soviet visitors by the State Department, If Mikhail Peslyak made a little speech, Malyshev translated it. If Boris Kulaev, the 191-pounder, had a headache, Malyshev asked for aspirin. His voice had to serve 11 men, and he stayed busy.
In Tulsa the visitors were put up at the YMCA and Thursday morning began with a workout. At noon 400 participants in the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce Public Affairs Forum watched the Soviet wrestlers, the American wrestlers and other special guests file into the banquet hall and take their places at a special table. Carefully the Russians measured three or four teaspoonfuls of sugar into their glasses of milk and everybody pitched into a roast-beef luncheon. After dessert, Mikhail Peslyak was introduced as Mike and Vladimir Krutkovsky (who is bald) as Curly, in the approved Rotarian style.
Afterward some of the Russians went to see Natalie Wood in Marjorie Morningstar. The others returned to the YMCA, where two of the American wrestlers introduced them to bubble gum. Vakhtang Balavadze, the 160½-pounder who is 31 years old, the father of two children and a lecturer in history in a Georgian university, showed a special aptitude with bubble gum, though he did not appear to like its flavor much.
Late in the afternoon there was a wild encounter between the Soviet wrestlers and two bands of YMCA small fry. The Tiger Sharks (ages 8 and 9) and the Cobras (9 and up) came storming into the wrestling room and piled onto their visitors for a romp, sometimes at the rate of four or five per Russian. For a few minutes the language problem disappeared.
The wrestlers were candidly curious about U.S. living and asked questions whenever the interpreter was handy: How much does this man make? How much rent does that one pay? What is the cost of food for a family of four? And they made mild complaint about the weather—they had seen nothing but rain for five days. Peslyak looked up at the sky Thursday night. "I have seen stars in the American flag," he said, "but not in the American sky."
But Friday morning was clear and fine. As the six-car motor caravan rolled over the Turner Turnpike toward Oklahoma City and Norman (speed limit 70 mph) the fruit trees were in bloom and the low Oklahoma hills were brushed with green. It was a scene into which some Rodgers and Hammerstein character might have stepped to sing Oh, What a Beautiful Morning. Peslyak made movies out of the car window, shooting Howard Johnson restaurants, oil derricks and used car lots. By now he had run out of long Russian cigarets and was smoking Chesterfields in his little ivory holder, apparently with perfect satisfaction.
IN THE NAME OF THE STATE
In Oklahoma City, Governor Raymond Gary welcomed the Russian and American wrestlers in his private office and then stepped outside to be photographed with them in the setting of oil derricks which surround the capitol. Then the motorcade turned south to Norman.
After the 3:30 p.m. weighin (the matches began four hours later) the Russians retired to their dormitory quarters to rest. At last, the first of the events for which they had traveled some 5,000 miles was about to take place.
"It doesn't matter," said one observer, "whether you are a street sweeper, a wrestler or a nuclear physicist, your job in the Soviet Union is called an assignment in the name of the state." The wrestlers took their assignments seriously.
In the U.S. dressing room the mood of the crew-cut Americans was school-boyish and hopeful, but not too hopeful. "If we can just get 'em this first time out," one of them promised, "we'll have it made, boy, we'll have it made."
"What we really need," said another, "is an M-1," and he fired off a few imaginary rounds.
The Americans are accustomed to wrestle in the U.S. collegiate style, in which a man's shoulders must be kept upon the mat for two full seconds to score a fall. They would be tackling the Soviet wrestlers in the international freestyle, in which a momentary touch of the shoulders to the mat is a fall and rolling on one's back loses points. They were setting out, then, with something of a disadvantage.
In the Russians' dressing room the mood was that of a group of sober workmen getting ready to go on the job.
The University of Oklahoma field house will hold 6,000 spectators, but only 3,000 showed up for the first appearance of Soviet athletes in the United States. Most of these were townspeople, since the week coincided with spring recess at the university. They made a knowing audience. As the opening ceremonies dragged a little, one southwestern voice called imperatively, "Let's rassle!"
A wrestling match begins with the flyweights and works up to the heavyweights. Dick Delgado, the wiry little Oklahoma University senior in the 114½-pound class, had wrestled Meriyan Tsalkalamanidze twice before—at the World Championships in Japan in 1954 and at Melbourne in 1956—and had lost to him by one point each time. Delgado took the offensive and at the six-minute bell the judges declared the match even. In the second period Delgado was leading when the Russian suddenly flipped him over for a fall.
In the 125½-pound class, Terry McCann, a polite and mild-mannered young businessman of Tulsa, pinned Vladimir Arsenyan, an American history student, in seven minutes 14 seconds, after handling him easily throughout the match. Arsenyan rose from the mat looking like a man who understands he has failed in his assignment in the name of the state.
After that, the Soviet team took everything. They got only one more fall—George Skhirtladze pinned Fred Davis of Tulsa in seven minutes 22 seconds—but won all the rest on decisions, all but one of which were unanimous.
"They've got us beat in a lot of ways," said one veteran Oklahoma observer. "Better balance than our boys, and they never waste a bit of energy. They know how to wait for the right moment, and each of them knows how to make the best use of his particular physique."
"They are in no better condition than our boys are," said Tom Lumly, the American team manager, "but they showed us some new tricks on take-downs. They had some holds that we don't know the names of because we never saw them before."
Coach Krutkovsky was not greatly pleased with his seven victories. His men were tired and had wrestled badly, he said. After the matches the two teams went out together to eat. Both groups ate huge quantities of food, and one of the Russians drank three malted milks and smoked a cigar. These excesses displeased the Soviet coach so much that the next morning, before leaving Norman, he ordered his wrestlers into the steam room and cooked them unmercifully to restore them to their proper weights.
Yet Saturday night in Stillwater the Americans made progress: they lost five, drew two and won one. The winner again was Terry McCann, who pinned Arsenyan in 10:22. This modest and heavily horn-rimmed young man, who at 24 years and 125½ pounds is the head of a family of four, began to look like a wrestler's version of Explorer I—a small, emphatic answer to the Soviet Union. Delgado, aggressive as before, was awarded a draw with Tsalkalamanidze, and the 315-pound Bill Kerslake of Cleveland, who had not reached Oklahoma in time to wrestle at Norman, drew his match with Kandelaki.
Again the crowd was small—3,000 where there was room for six. After the matches people came down upon the gymnasium floor to ask for autographs, and the Soviet wrestlers obediently and wordlessly signed programs with ballpoint pens. Mikhail Peslyak stood quietly to one side, smiling a little, remembering, perhaps, with satisfaction a remark he had made soon after the team had arrived in the United States: "We did not come here to win, necessarily, but we did not necessarily come to lose, either."