John Peterson became a champion, but brother Ben, a Munich titlist, dropped a notch after he met a great ol' Soviet Georgia boy
August 08, 1976

American wrestler Ben Peterson had a comfortable lead against a Polish rival Friday night in Montreal's Maurice Richard Arena when his older brother John, an Olympic teammate, suddenly decided it was not comfortable enough. Bounding from his seat, John made his way to Ben's side just as the second period ended and joined the coaches in offering counsel. "You've got to circle more instead of coming straight at him all the time," he said urgently. "This guy is dangerous." Ben listened gravely, then went out against Pawel Kurczewski for the final round. Circling as instructed, he wrapped up the easy victory.

As the U.S. wrestling brothers went about this sort of thing in the 6,500-seat arena, rivals might have thought they were seeing double. Though 27-year-old John Peterson was competing as a middleweight and 26-year-old Ben as a light heavyweight, similarities between the broad-shouldered, intensely aggressive pair often made it hard to tell which one was on the mat. Something else they had in common was touched on by Paul Peterson, their father, a Wisconsin dairy farmer who allowed proudly that his boys were wholesome lads who wrestled "not just for themselves but for their country." And when John wound up with a gold medal and Ben with a silver, they were, in effect, conjuring up reverse images of the same picture: at the Munich Olympics in 1972 it was Ben who took the gold, John the silver.

The brotherly success might have been even tidier—like both winning golds at the same Olympics—were it not for Levan Tediashvili, a winegrower's son from Soviet Georgia who is considered the world's best all-around wrestler. Tediashvili, unbeaten in international matches since he began competing in 1971, whipped John Peterson in Munich on his way to the gold medal in the 180.5-pound middleweight division. Then he won world championships for the next three years in the 198-pound light-heavy class, the division in which he beat Ben Peterson for the gold in Montreal.

With Tediashvili leading the way, the Soviets won five of the 10 weight classes, reasserting their dominance of the sport. Still, American wrestlers gave John and Ben just enough medal support—the U.S. total was one gold, three silvers and two bronzes—to suggest that the current boomlet in freestyle wrestling in this country extends beyond the Peterson farm.

The fitness campaign was grueling in Montreal, where the team ran three miles every morning and wrestled an hour nonstop each afternoon. Some wrestlers attended a concert in the Olympic Village by Blood, Sweat and Tears, a fitting name, but-the training regimen remained otherwise undisturbed even by the birth of a daughter to welterweight Stan Dziedzic's wife Arlene back in Pittsburgh. It was the couple's first child, but until the Games ended, the proud father knew 3-week-old Jodi only through snapshots and the sound of her crying over the long-distance line. "It's frustrating not to be able to see or hold her but the Olympics are awfully important to me," Dziedzic said. He was so lost in training that he learned of Jimmy Carter's nomination 10 days after it happened.

The emphasis on conditioning paid dividends. Dziedzic, who won a bronze, showed his stuff against Russia's Ruslan Ashuralyev, a two-time world champion. The Russian jumped to a 6-3 lead, but Dziedzic came back with eight straight points to win 11-6. "I needed a little extra toughness and it was there," he said. Heavyweight Russ Hellickson staged a couple of similar early-round rallies before losing to the Soviet's Ivan Yarygin, who picked up his second straight gold medal. The agile Yarygin went ahead 17-4 but was flailing at the end as Hellickson, who got the silver, exhibited stamina even in defeat, storming back to make the final margin 19-13.

Veteran featherweight Gene Davis of Lakewood, Calif. had a shot at a gold medal but ended up with a bronze after he was pinned by Jung-Mo Yang of Korea. To the American team it looked as though Davis' shoulder was six inches above the mat, but the U.S. beef was rejected. It was the only complaint made by the Americans, who felt that otherwise the officiating was excellent.

The sixth U.S. medal was won by Marine First Lieut. Lloyd (Butch) Keaser, a lightweight who hoped to become the first black Olympic wrestling champion but had to settle, maddeningly, for silver after a scoring mixup. A former collegiate wrestler at Annapolis, Keaser lost to Dan Gable in the 1972 team trials, but after Gable retired Keaser won the world championship in 1973. In Montreal he rolled over six straight opponents with a Gablesque ease that had everybody admiring his ankle picks, lateral movement, underhooks and other terms that trip off the tongues of wrestling folk. It was such esoterica that prompted a newspaperman to ask after Keaser pinned Iran's Mohamed-Reza Navaii, "In technical terms, what was your winning move called, Lloyd?" Devilishly, Keaser replied, "A bear hug."

Until his last bout Keaser appeared to be heading straight for the gold. Under the convoluted scoring system, he was so far ahead of the field going into his final bout against the Russian Pavel Pinigin that he did not even need to win; all he had to do to take the gold medal was avoid losing the match by more than seven points. For some reason Keaser mistakenly got the idea he was safe if he lost by 11, with the result that even after a fired-up Pinigin manhandled him 12-1, he thought he had won the gold. When the U.S. coaches told him that Pinigin was Olympic champion, Keaser was stunned. "I don't know how I got confused about the scoring," he said. He was no clearer on what went wrong on the mat. "The Russian just took it to me," he said of his shellacking. "Maybe being so close to the gold hurt me subconsciously."

All of which left it up to the Peterson family to win a gold medal for the U.S. Along with three other brothers and a sister, John and Ben grew up on their parents' 80-acre dairy farm in Comstock, Wis., where they hefted bales of hay, milked the cows and earned spending money by working at a nearby cannery. They went off to wrestle in college, John to Stout (Wis.) State, Ben to Iowa State, but both remain silo-straight. John currently is coaching a wrestling team of Athletes in Action, an arm of Campus Crusade for Christ. Ben left his Olympic Village quarters the other evening for a bout and realized he had forgotten something. He went back for his Bible.

As defending Olympic champion, Ben complained of receiving no more respect than Rodney Dangerfield. "Once you win the gold, you get the idea you're never going to lose again," he said. "But it doesn't work that way. Guys are out to beat you." Certainly Ben did not get much respect early last week from Bulgaria's Choukri Lutviev. With only five seconds left, Ben was behind 13-12, facing a defeat that possibly could have knocked him out of the running for even a bronze. Then with a remarkable effort of will, Ben drove in and grabbed a leg, rolled Lutviev over and angled the Bulgarian's shoulders toward the mat, a maneuver that earned him two points and victory in the bout. A Bulgarian protest that the maneuver deserved just one point was disallowed, as was the claim that the move occurred after time had run out.

Alas for Ben, he could not repeat the comeback in his showdown with Tediashvili. The Russian is so accustomed to dominating matches that he assumes an embarrassed expression when somebody manages to score a rare point against him. Otherwise, he all but yawns as he works his will on opponents. Tediashvili didn't quite do this to Ben. He literally had his hands full as he twisted and flexed his way to a 10-5 win. "Teddy is explosive but at the same time his technique is mostly basic stuff," said U.S. Coach Wayne Baughman. "He ties people up, gets them to make mistakes and then takes advantage."

The one benefit in wrestling Teddy is that it can be educational. Following his Olympic loss to the Russian in Munich, John Peterson decided it was time to expand his repertoire, which consisted mostly of leg attacks, by becoming better at counter wrestling, reacting to the other man's moves. "I really had only a couple of moves in Munich," John recalls. "I couldn't have got by using the same ones again."

It was a vastly improved John Peterson, then, who swept over six rivals in Montreal, including Russia's Viktor Novojilov, for the middleweight gold. Held to two-all after the first period, John soon exploded for 16 straight points—one spectacular six-point flurry coming when he repeatedly lifted Novojilov off the ground and rolled him across the mat, like a child pushing a hoop—winning 20-4. John cinched the gold by beating Turkey's Mehmet Uzun, then cheered in vain on the sidelines as Ben lost to Teddy, momentarily dampening John's joy over his own gold-medal performance. As John put it, "When you've got a brother in it with you, it's hard getting all wrapped up in yourself."

PHOTOIn the final middleweight bout, John Peterson was on top of Mehmet Uzun of Turkey all the way. PHOTOBen Peterson makes pure taffy out of Barbaro Morgan of Cuba. PHOTOBut a big bear of a hug is applied by the Soviets' Teddy in the final.

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