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That infamous day and five moments of reflection during the laborious effort to accomplish first-ever 50-mile bike ride.

First, there were loud, deafening chants calling the country’s name, enormous joy, and massive celebration about what would’ve put an end to the Olympic medal drought in that particular sport, freeing us from the heavy burden of an exhaustive wait. And for him, be the nation’s proud son and a sound hope for a change for the time being. Then, that scenery was quickly changed to shocking disbelief and whacking anger of those involved in the match and continuous booing of fans inside and outside the Carioca Arena in the Olympic Park, Rio de Janeiro. Back home, that made the entire country crying bitter tears and igniting incredulous outrage.

No, no, I’m not talking about Brazilians or their beloved, exhilarating game of football being crushed and not even in regards to any title match-up. I’m here talking about the freestyle wrestling match for the bronze in which my countryman, champion wrestler, could have won and brought home the prize sought for 36 years, a medal of any color.

A seemingly beautiful day in late August of 2016 supposed to be joyous but turned out to be somewhat disastrous for me (I’m sure for many others too). Since then, frequent flashes of “what if” scenarios had been running in my mind, in some instances, overflowing.

…On this lovely (sort of) spring day, I’m boyishly heading out to execute a goal to achieve my first ever 50-mile ride. The reason I’m saying “sort of” is, under normal circumstances, yes, it can be that day; however, it’s just an ordinary day because of ongoing worldwide pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Pretty much the whole world is in hiatus and endless disruptions affecting all aspects of life including sport. The 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, a top competition, esteemed by thousands of athletes and admired by millions of fans, is postponed. It’s a colossal disappointment and training schedule scramble for most determined athletes, especially those targeting their last chance to shine on the world stage this calendar year. And here comes that Olympic’ what if’ moment flashing again, this time accompanying my ride and occupying my mind.

To warm up my body as well as my mind, I’m starting at a slow pace since there is no pressure. To fulfill this obligation is solely dependent on my execution. I just need patience, to begin with.

Patience.

I got my final order set. So must’ve our wrestler, I assumed. His was way more significant. Ganzorigiin Mandakhnaran is in the Olympic bronze medal match, a weight class of 65 kg. That is the difference, at the “win or go home level”, which kept bothering me. He faced Ikhtiyor Navruzov, a 2015 World Championship silver medalist from Uzbekistan. …Confident attack from the start, he was awarded 2 points right away; however, 51 seconds left on the clock, the score is 4:6 already, and under pressure, he’s on the chase. There were a series of slips and misses, after a crafty move releasing his hands that was holding his right leg, Mandakhnaran was able to come around and behind Navruzov, now the score is tied at 6:6. It’s a nail-biter that keeps you on edge. Eighteen seconds left. Uzbek side was holding time challenging the fairness of last points. That delay turned out to be costly for them, causing a penalty which equals one point. The score changes to 7:6. Match has resumed eventually. On the speedy attack as expected, Navruzov grabbed momentarily Mandakhnaran’s both hands under the pit but was unable to convert into a point. One point ahead, our wrestler decided to go defensive, was sufficient, getting closer and closer to the final whistle. Five seconds left, and then…

Patience is a unique skill for elite athletes, and an increased one Mandakhnaran needed most. Do not panic; do not fade like a sharpshooter. Like Sean Elliot of San Antonio Spurs when he sensationally hit that miraculous 3 point shot from the right side of the court against Portland Trail Blazers in 1999 Western Conference Finals, dodging his defender S. Augmon and disregarding R. Wallace who was rushing in trying to block him. Enabling himself to concentrate not to step over the sideline, he squared for jump and elevated for the release. S.A. Spurs went on winning their first title, setting the framework toward becoming an NBA dynasty. Or another shooter like Ray Allen of Miami Heat. He was at the right time at the right place when he executed his shot in 2013 NBA Finals when his team needed 3 points only to force OT. He stepped beyond 3pt line, gathered himself neatly realizing his defender is much smaller Parker, soars above him and hits that precise shot so gracious as he was conducting usual business. But what counts most is immense patience based on killer instinct. Would they miss, the outcome could be entirely different. In this wrestling match, instead of continuing his defense patiently, Mandakhnaran started separating himself from it.

Not to ruin your aim.

…My leadoff section is already behind, and it’s time to increase my pace. Empty streets are so eerie, but almost non-traffic roads are giving me the advantage to speed up. However, I must not rush and ruin my aim, keeping in mind that I have not yet hit my halfway mark.

When I was growing up, I remember two cutout posters, a rare find from a sporting news magazine, only one available during that time, on the walls by the window of our crammed flat’s larger room. I bet my brothers found it somewhere and ceremoniously slapped those posters of former Soviet greats. One was of S. Andiev, legendary wrestler and heavyweight giant, and the other was of A. Tikhonov, 4-time Olympic champion (in 4 consecutive games) and biathlon’s superstar. In the team relay in the 1972 Sapporo Winter games, Tikhonov started in the first leg based on his fast skiing ability. After completion of his shooting with two penalties, he was flying toward the handover however broke his ski on a snow pit. That unexpected bad luck did not slow him down. The only thing in his mind was not to ruin the team’s chance and not to surrender a goal for precious gold, and he continued skiing on one leg, literally, for about two-thirds of a mile until the coach supplied him with a new one. He had a fierce run toward the finish line, and in the end, his team won.

…Mandakhnaran started expressing a happy grin, pulled his hand off of his opponent. What is he doing? Don’t you know your rivals? What must you do to overcome your competitors? Right. Study them hard. Improve yourself even harder.

Speaking of biathlon, there is a perfect example of Norwegian Johannes Thingnes Bø, who had been for many years in the shadow of unshakeable maestro Marten Furkad, king of snow stadiums and M. Jordan of biathlon, trying to catch and compete in equal terms. Tireless work of polishing his ski technique and improving his shooting execution on the rifle range (even readmitting for risky surgery to repair his collarbone, which was affecting his shooting) allowed him to overcome that grand hurdle at last.

Seize the moment.

…As midday approaches, the outside temperature is getting near pleasant. Early stiffness is gone, and I’m well into my rhythm as my ride’s third section is underway. A mostly flat road until halfway done without a problem; however, there is a steep uphill portion about a mile long I’m about to hit. Hilly roads with gradient climb always cause a challenge, especially for novice riders like me, and I started calibrating my mind and collecting myself.

… Mandakhnaran is already lifting his hands in the air, about to start a celebration. Don’t you collect yourself till the final whistle? Are you sure you are the winner here? Not many guys face such an exceptional moment to finish off claiming victory regardless of the degree of magnitude. He needed to have a “seize the moment” mentality.

Every ordinary kid back then knew the names of a couple of soccer players, one is, definitely, Pele, the other one is Maradona, probably. Then there was the year of 1986 when Argentinian magician “El Diego”, after the scintillating performance on the world stage, proved why his name is standing out. Every football fan, including those haters, was awestruck, witnessing his dazzling show of determination and ‘seize the moment’ performance like it’s the last time ever. Ambidextrous phenom was constantly thinking and improving, relentlessly kept working up from game to game, and virtuously orchestrating his teammates. It’s unnecessary to bring up and describe all his goals scored; however, one pass, last clutch touch must be cherished and worshipped dearly. Finals of that World cup and winding down minutes of the tie game at 2:2. Six minutes before full time, while being closely guarded by great Matthaus and surrounded by four others from West Germany squad, Maradona made that iconic, once in a lifetime forward pass that created clear path for Burruchaga who was able to utilize the chance of a go-ahead goal and therefore, unequivocally completed final episode of electrifying drama called “1986 World cup”. High awareness. Lightning-quick decision. Soft-touch. Unstoppable will to claim the crown.

In 1994 WC, under different circumstances but not lesser in character measurement, Italy’s Roberto Baggio heroically led his team in a tough match vs. Nigeria, a powerful side and newly introduced sensation of that championship. Having allowed an early goal, at the helm of his team, Baggio was called to organize a massive, painstaking, all-out attack. The weather wasn’t helping. Nerves started cracking on that scorching hot day and resulted in 2 red cards. Down to 9 players and still 0:1, they kept pressing on with the ferocious attack, and every second was precious as a drop of water in a desert as the game was getting closer to full time. Nigerian team stood unified as an impenetrable wall with superior goalie Rufai in the back, held very confident up to 89th minute when that ‘seize the moment’ greatness came from Baggio. They left him open, failed to prevent him from getting the ball. He took a rolling shot from about 13 yards to the left corner, barely squeezing the ball between post and Rufai’s fully extended hand. The score is 1:1, Baggio scored one more from the PK spot in OT, Italy took care of business and went on to the next round. Right after that match, I was able to see what truly distinguishes great players from good players. Just a “size of a ball” difference! A difference of a blink of an eye, a half step ahead, the ability to find a spot, or quality to seize the moment for that matter.

I genuinely wish I could foresee and prevent what our wrestler is about to do: he must fight till the last whistle like others; instead, he’s eager to stop. He was already in full smile, running around in celebration.

…As for me, I must say I surprised myself at reaching the top of the hill without the usual struggle. At least mentally, though energy’s down. Must’ve benefited from my overwhelming thoughts of how to seize the moment that made me forget about the physical side of my task, at least briefly.

And I’m strolling downhill on to the penultimate section. The comfort of a slight slope is giving me a chance to catch my breath and ease up.

“But should not be for Mandakhnaran,” the Rio wrestling picture kicks back in me. Two seconds left for our 2-time World championship bronze medalist to reach the elusive Olympic medal and hit another milestone in his long career, a journey to the top honor. An honor that cements you in people’s heart of this tiny nation that is so passionate about wrestling.

Bringing up a surprise for rivals.

The rivalry is the primary motivational thing in a competition. Athletes ought to train keeping top rivals in their minds and processing all possible venues, even handing out a surprise element against them, whether it’s the Olympic stage, world championship, or prestigious race. Particular success in those competitions brings out national pride to a higher level, grabs the attention of youngsters presenting eye-opening, first-hand experience how to feel about heroes and home country. I can assure you one of those youngsters was me.

During my high school junior year, on an ordinary spring evening, I was watching TV. Because of limited sporting show broadcasting from the former Soviet Union, watching anything was an opportunity, and I would often be glued to. Ensuing stage of Peace Race, annual spring tradition, one of the world grand tours among cyclists, was on. Back then, in the 80s, we didn’t have the luxury to watch three grand tours of cycling. Suddenly, the sound of saying ‘Mongolia’ strikes unsuspecting me. “Three cyclists on the attack, creating a gap from peloton now, one of them is a racer from Mongolia”, the commentator says, then went quiet like if he pressed the pause button. He is back on, resumed his commentating with confidence. After naming 2 of them (Romascanu from Romania, Texeira from Portugal, later I found out) as if he was able to check his notes, he announced “Mongolian cyclist is Tsedendamba Ganbold, indeed” so aloud that stuck in my memory imprinted. I went in awe and rushed in upping TV volume, sat there, refusing to budge till the end of it. The stage was 175 km long from Poznan, Poland to Forst, Germany. The breakaway trio was able to secure podiums crossing the finish line over a minute and half ahead of the main group where I could see a gang of dangerous, top echelon cyclists. I must truthfully admit, back then, I had no way knowing to observe or feel the totality of deep insights that exist in racing competition. As time passed, I convincingly understood that the Tour of Peace, multi-day race of physical and mental toughness was indeed the Tour de France of the East as many experts had been praising. On the grueling, stamina-testing miles of enduring long days, cyclists show unparalleled determination and calculated execution of tightly kept secret plans. Although they arrive at the tour reaching the peak of their conditioning, as usual, the outcome of any given stage or entire race can be decided by the execution of a single powerful move or surprise moment, shall we call it. Avid cycling fans know many such instances. Like British Froome’s move, clean groomed leader from team Sky, currently Ineos, in 2016 Tour de France. After surviving a brutal climb, he launched the downhill breakaway from the route’s top. He was able to kick off that knockout punch when his main rival, non-other “El Condor” Quintana (Columbia), a climbing specialist, slightly loosened his attention while attempting to grab a drink and wasting a precious second. Froome went on to win his career-defining TdF while Kintana, unfortunately, never had been able to recover since. Or latest one from Ecuadorian Carapaz, ex Movistar team rider, quite but sleek and gutsy one, who was able to capitalize his out of chart confidence combined with bold decision to use bigger crankset on crucial mountain stage 14 during the 2019 Giro d’Italia, a decision that gave him an opening to win the whole thing, his most significant achievement so far.

Yes, Ts. Ganbold’s success, first-ever achieved by Mongolian cyclist, caught many of us by glorious surprise, and just witnessing him standing up on podium during the award and flag-raising ceremony was an incredible moment for me. Only he has accomplished that feat twice, the significance of which still resonates among Mongolian cyclists and young athletes.

The focus.

…My ride is on the home stretch, and soon I will hit the final point of this destination. Of course, I’m far from applauding myself, trying to stay focused and manage whatever energy left in me, not deviate from the course.

Similar to Ts. Ganbold’s moment was about to happen again, I decided. Had we all? Our wrestler is in total celebration circling the mat. Without doubt. And here comes the gong announcing the full time. A confirming signal yet to come from the match judge. Is it over? Is there a sure thing? The confused referee is standing in the middle of a mat, waiting to declare a winner. Uzbek side has no intention to concede, arguing, pleading.

Bang! Penalty slapped on Mandakhnaran, all of a sudden. That was given for leaving the contest, refusing to stay engaged in a match, and celebrating prematurely, officials explained later. Adding to the event’s stunning turn, another penalty came down for coaches’ misconduct, and the final score became 7:8. That resulted, as you can see now, disastrously in loss of medal causing a mighty eruption of fans’ disagreement right where a telling of this tale started, as you may recall.

Let me have the freedom to cite some excerpts from UWW official book of rules where it states, “only the gold medalist is authorized to celebrate its victory on the mat; other medalists are not authorized to celebrate… on the mat”, “if a wrestler interrupts the bout without any blood or visible injury… , one point will be awarded to the opponent”, “it is strictly forbidden for a coach to manifest… their disapproval or unhappiness”. There even was a rumor that prior to the medal round, all coaches were apparently warned about the situation to avoid premature celebration before final gong, I heard. But, in the bitterness of a whole situation, I must note that no clause nor sentence could be found regarding point or penalty to be imposed after full time of any match. It is also begging the question about the penalty: was it imposed before final gong or after.

Although the official result is already incontrovertibly in the history book as is, in the age of social media, oh boy, it is not that simple to process all the controversies surrounding that match, sometimes out of context. It is tiresome to digest fiery discussion of narratives if that is clear cut naked truth or never-ending source of suspicion. Now what? What’s next? One thing I know is had he kept his focus by wisdom, controlled his advantage by experience, nowadays, he would have been positioned in quite a favorable situation, if not in a full state of mind.

In the wake of postponement of the 2020 Olympic games, every aspect of it, independently or related to each other, is being affected and facing unavoidable changes. Of course, athletes, first of all. Could added 12-month difference be a desirable advantage or unfair drawback? Perhaps, Mandakhnaran has to make changes. No doubt his motivation to prove himself still be there, but how high will it be or will it diminish. It’s a fact that the age factor is imperative so that it would require a specific new training regimen and wrestling adjustment. Will it go smoother? How about new opponents in different weight class? In the upper weight class, he may not see his usual Rio rivals like Uzbek’s Navruzov, Italy’s Chamizo, or Russia’s Soslan Ramonov. Ramonov a.k.a. “Hurricane” defeated Azerbaijan’s Toghrul Asgarov on technical superiority in gold medal match, displaying a commanding skill of how to accumulate points in no time and destroy opponents. Meantime, newcomers, aiming for their shining glory, won’t waste time, they only will grow stronger and extra seasoned.

Can he be that champion who can reach the culmination of his purpose on that sacred mat bringing an Olympic title of freestyle wrestling we never had and securing a lasting serenity among us, a nation that is anxiously waiting. New circumstances, new challenges definitely will be arising, but he must manage as a world-caliber wrestler.

How about coaches at the national team or governing body of Mongolian freestyle wrestling association who must bear some responsibility? When they arrived in 2016 Rio de Janeiro’s game, I felt they were lacking strong leadership and a clear focus on executing the plan of which the main agenda was, no doubt, to be successful. Since then, I hope they have come to the negotiating table to see visible fundamental misdirection, taking on punches of how dysfunctional was their core as an organization and putting an end to the divisive stalemate. A wise man once said: “Criticism fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of thing”. One could not agree more. Now that 12-month extension is given, they can further work to sharpen the focus of building more robust management and fully sustained trust where national team athletes’ psychological and physical readiness grows and depends on it. I must say, this criticism should not be ignored by other associations as well.

Everything that had happened in those last five seconds or so, that was hanging over me for quite some time, that by force brought me to unleash scrambling and spilling thoughts, is over.

And, now what? 50 miles. Yes, I have done it. I’m over the hill, no more of this agony of shortcomings or that torturing idea of self-testing, “tougher than thought” half a hundred-mile ride. I’m sitting home, ignoring plenty of physical pain, deservedly sipping hot chocolate, taking a bath in seeping mental joy, and awarding myself with goosebumps like I have executed an unordinary task. Just like George Smiley of a thriller plot “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, a hero (played by Gary Oldman) from one of the movies that are assisting me in passing quarantine time. I’m recalling the end scene of it where, once he was able to solve a puzzling series of events, he’s sitting filled with beaming satisfaction under the music of that lovely, assuring song “La Mer” (The Sea. Version of Julio Iglesias).

What’s next? How about a 60-mile ride by the 2021ish Olympics, a new milestone came calling. I should focus on that. Why not.

And, I’m sure my countryman already has his focus on his task too.

Vangan (Vanchinkhuu Gankhuyag)
New Jersey, USA. May 2020