By Edmond Y. Azadian
During the 31st summer Olympic Games held in Rio de Janeiro as the US swimming legend Michael Phelps was hoarding gold, I was reminded of a parable told by an Armenian hero, Khrimian Hairig, upon his return from Berlin to Constantinople, dashing Armenia’s dreams of emancipation. The year was 1878 and the scene was the Conference of Berlin, a follow-up conference to that of San Stefano the same year, when the Armenian Case was brought to an international forum for the first time in modern history.
Upon his return to Constantinople, Khrimian Hairig related his famous parable of “The Iron Ladle.” He compared the conference in Berlin to a feast with a huge pot of harissa on the table. Those participants who had iron ladles in their hands were able to take their share of harissa. He, on the other hand, had only a paper ladle, which disintegrated in the harissa and therefore he had returned home empty handed.
Watching the Olympic games, I was waiting for the Armenian iron ladle, which finally was capable of getting something for the nation with the gold medal won by Artur Aleksanyan in the 98-kilogram category of Greco-Roman wrestling.
It was not enough that he defeated his Cuban opponent, Yasmany Lugo Cabrera; he had made it to the finals by defeating the Turkish wrestler Cenk Ildem, rendering his gold medal victory all the more meaningful. Aleksanyan, whose nickname is the White Bear, let off a roar after winning, which was cheered on by many around the world.
The Olympic Games represent the ultimate test for all the participating athletes, who train and prepare for years, pampered by associations and supported by their respective governments.
For Armenian athletes, depravation and neglect are the first challenges they have to meet, before they can concentrate on their training and dream about the medals they can win.
Those athletes carry their national tragedies with them. It was heart-wrenching to witness the champion Aleksanyan, during the medal ceremony, wearing a t-shirt with the picture of a 19-year-old war hero Artur Abadjian, who had been killed during the April Karabagh attack by Azerbaijan. Aleksanyan also dedicated his gold medal to all Karabagh heroes.
Compared to Turkey, which has a population of 75 million, and Azerbaijan, with a population of 9 million, Armenia did really well, winning one gold medal and three silvers.
Armenia’s team had 32 members, while Azerbaijan, with its 56 members won four silvers and six bronzes, and Turkey, with its 103 athletes, only won two silver and two bronze.
One of the most controversial contests was again in the Greco-Roman category wrestling, where Mihran Harutyunyan received a silver medal, which he later tossed away disdainfully, an obvious challenge to the referee’s unjust verdict. The latter declared that Harutyunian’s Serbian opponent, Davon Stefanek, was the winner, a decision which elicited boos from the crowd. Had he won what was due to him, Armenia would have been far ahead of its neighbors in the medal count. Already a petition is being circulated to restore the gold medal to Harutyunyan.
On the other hand, Rasul Chunayev, the Azeri athlete who was defeated by Harutyuynan, is in hot water. He has received many death threats upon his return home, because an Armenian athlete defeated him.
In ancient Greece, the Olympic games represented a sacrosanct time when all wars and hostilities were suspended through the duration of the games. Unfortunately, in modern times, the pure spirit of competition is not always observed. Throughout the last Olympics, Azerbaijan continued violating the ceasefire, thereby fueling hatred — rather than the spirit of competition — between the two nations.
Another sad story which was dragged all the way into the limelight of Rio was the case of silver medalist Gor Minasyan. An article was circulated on the Internet by Levon Barseghyan, titled “Gor Minasian’s family deserves a new home” (see its English translation on page 3 of this issue). The article was accompanied by photos of the athlete’s training facility, a dilapidated shed contaminated with all kinds of hazardous agents. On top of that it is reported that the Olympic champion has been living since his childhood in one of the domiks in Gyumri. Those metal shacks are not meant to be used for more than two or three years. However, Gor’s family, among the 3,000 there, have called domiks home for the past 28 years.
It is said that Shirak Center and SOS have built 100 apartments for domik dwellers during the last six years. God knows when the rest of the 3,000 families can move to decent living quarters. It is claimed that the city has no funds to build homes for those destitute families, never mind that the mayor or one of his cronies has built a Versailles-style opulent hotel for the tourists.
Imagine the glorious hero, Gor Minasyan, returning to his domik in Gyumri after the limelight and glitz of Rio.
Other athletes of Armenian descent have chosen to represent Armenia, though they were not born there. Houry Gebeshian left her mark on the Olympics history by introducing a new move named for her. She was the first Armenian female gymnast in the Olympics, bringing pride to Armenians not only in Armenia, but especially Massachusetts, where she was born.
There are also Armenian-born athletes who represent other countries, such as boxer Artem Harutyunyan, who won a bronze medal for Germany.
Millions of sports fans watched the Olympics on TV screens, while many made sacrifices to attend the games. For all the enthusiasts, the games present entertainment in the pure spirit of competition.
As we delve into the life stories of each Armenian athlete, we realize that they carry with them the tragedies of their nation. They have to overcome challenges to be able to compete with the champions from around the world, which makes every victory a cause for national pride and every medal that much more meaningful.
As we can see, all these athletes also bring home some rust with the glitter of gold and silver. They bring also pride to a battered nation, much in need of some cheer.
During the last two years, Armenians have been on a rollercoaster. The Genocide centennial commemoration marked the revival of a nation, despite all machinations by the Turks. Germany recognized the Genocide and France renewed its efforts to criminalize Genocide denial and the message reverberated around the globe.
Then came the Aurora Prize and the Pope’s visit to Armenia, once again focusing world attention on that tiny country, tucked away in the Caucasus.
But whatever was gained in terms of international attention was clouded over by the sacrifices of the April war and the unrest which followed domestically as a result.
Compared to its size, Armenia attained a respectable place in the Rio Olympics. The athletes will return home to a hero’s welcome. We do hope that this time, the spotlight of glory proves to be more enduring.