Edition No. 41. Winter, 2004. Today is
 

Interview with Zurab Zviadauri
A World of Judo Magazine Exclusive
By: Kim Willingham
TWOJ spoke to the Georgian Olympic judo Gold Medallist, Zurab Zviadauri, and asked him about the influence of judo in his life so far.

Starting judo at a very young age under the watchful eye of an older cousin, Temo Temur Shetekauri, Zurab explained that he had ample opportunity to hone his skills, as the tradition of Georgian wrestling is very strong in the region where he grew up (around the town of Axmeda). Although there is no ground-work in this wrestling form, the standing techniques are remarkably similar to those in judo. He spoke warmly of his cousin Temo, who, up until Zurab was 17, taught him everything about judo and about sporting behaviour in general. "He is a very humble, modest man and he taught me that I should never show emotion or excitement when I won a contest. I was a winner, he told me. Victory should be treated as normal, not something to show off about" Zurab said. The emphasis on this attitude turned out to be the reason why Zurab looked so solemn throughout the Olympic rostrum ceremony as he received his Gold medal.

At the end of the Olympic final, having dispatched his Japanese opponent for Ippon, Zurab had raised his forefinger high in victorious salute. This forefinger was to say he was the first – not the first Georgian to take an Olympic Gold, as others had done this at previous Olympics (both when Georgia was part of the USSR and even since their independence) – but Zurab was the first Georgian who was not a product of the Russian system. The first truly home grown Olympic Champion. As he stood there on the Olympic tatami with his finger pointing skyward he looked into the crowd and saw his cousin Temo staring at him expressionless. "I saw he was not smiling," said Zurab "and I thought he was angry with me for this display of emotion. I was so worried that I had upset him, that this was all I could think of during the medal ceremony. When I finally got to speak to him afterwards he explained that the reason he had looked so blank was nothing to do with being angry – he was just so completely stunned and overjoyed that I had won Olympic Gold he could not even move!"

One person who was wreathed in smiles in the Olympic stadium was the normally stern faced Shota Khabarelli, the Georgian team coach and a past Olympic Champion himself (Moscow 1980). We asked Zurab what Khabarelli was like to train with. He admitted that he himself was probably the National Coach’s most difficult student. "He is always phoning me, chasing me to come training." (This will become harder now, with Zurab constantly changing his mobile phone number to discourage his army of fans from calling him at all hours) – Zurab is known for missing training regularly but he says, with a boyish grin, that Khaberelli keeps him professional which is obviously no easy task. When we question him about his training the details are quite surprising. In a normal week he spends four days just doing judo – only about an hour a day he says. Then two days are used to build fitness doing things like hill running, rope climbing, football, press-ups, sit-ups and stretching. He is clearly a powerful fighter so we ask if he does much weight training – maybe once a month, is the reply. The people of the mountain region in Georgia are naturally strong, he explains, the physical demands of living in this area have bred them this way. He takes great pride in this natural ability, assuring us that he takes no vitamins or dietary supplements – however two weeks before a competition he stops drinking wine (which must be hard, as wine making is part of the Georgian way of life and wine drinking and toast making appear to be an integral part of meal times there). Also, if we understand him correctly, he never drinks tea, coffee or cola.

The support of his family is clearly very important to Zurab. Although his parents could not make the journey to Athens, they were all geared up to watch his Olympic progress on TV. Unbelievably, Zurab told us, on the crucial day the electricity supply to the entire region failed and all seemed lost. But an emergency generator was rushed to their home and hundreds of locals gathered there to squeeze into their house and watch Zurab’s historic victory.

While his parents remain at home, his brother is constantly on hand to support him. Some years ago there had been a falling out between them and his brother left Georgia to go and live elsewhere in Europe. Zurab missed him greatly but only managed to re-establish contact when he was fighting in the 2001 Munich World Championships. Even before he had won his place in the final he phoned his brother claiming that he had already fought his way through, so his brother came to watch him take the Silver medal, and the ensuing reconciliation saw his brother coming home to Georgia. The tears come to both the brothers’ eyes when they talk of this period in their lives. " I am so happy and grateful that he is here with me now," says Zurab.

A more recent re-uniting of family has occurred since the Athens Olympics. Another of Zurab’s cousins is the Greek Gold medallist, Illiadis, (who Zurab tells us is just his opposite when it comes to training – constantly on the go, never missing a session and doing loads of circuits etc.) The two cousins will now be fighting alongside each other as part of a newly formed Georgian club that has entered the Europa Club Cup Tournament. For the last few years in this competition, Zurab has fought for the German club Abensberg, but he will no doubt be very happy to be able to represent his own country now.

We finished by asking Zurab if he had any thoughts about his British opponent at the Olympics – Winston Gordon – the only fighter to score off him with a throw on that glorious day and who actually came within a whisker of beating him for a place in the final. "He is very strong," he says, then once again the roguish grin comes across his face and he adds "Tell him to train harder." Zurab Zviadauri is already a national hero in Georgia. If he continues to produce the sort of judo we saw in the Athens Olympic Stadium he will finish up as a legend.

KW


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