Politically, economically, Moldova is a mess. And yet, in wrestling, this tiny nation punches well above its weight. MH gets to grips with the ancient sport of Trânta.
It's 8:50am on a freezing morning ins Chișinău.
In a non-descript Soviet-era building in the Moldovan capital, 60 local wrestlers are completing their warm up rituals. As beads of condensation form on the gym’s dirty windows and moisture rolls down walls held together by crumbling concrete and decades of sweat, three judges and six stern officiators don traditionally embroidered shirts and conical woollen shepherds’ hats. The national anthem crackles from the antiquated Tannoy as the wrestlers unpeel their shirts.
Solemnly, Dr Serghei Busuioc – former Master of Sport of the USSR; now chairman of the Moldovan Wrestling Federation – leads two challengers to the centre of the room. In a swift, mechanised motion, the men lock heads. The gym falls silent.
The capacity crowd of 700 spectators (Wembley Arena this is not) are about to witness the first bout of The National Championship of Moldovan Trânta – the country’s pared-back, lightning fast national sport, which is propelling Moldova to the peak of international wrestling glory. After battling a string of opponents, the overall winner will be presented with a live ram to symbolise his virility, and be given the opportunity to represent Moldova at an international level. In a country still living under the oppressive shadow of its communist past, the stakes could not be any higher.
In 1990, this geographically and politically tiny country, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, was hit hard by the Soviet Union’s collapse. Infantry soldiers from the former USSR’s 14th Army started a brief civil war when they took control over a sliver of land in Moldova’s east, stealing both a massive nuclear weapons cache and most of the new state’s heavy industry. Ensuing Russian sanctions choked Moldova’s prosperous vineyards, plunging locals’ wages to some of the lowest in the world.
Ordinary people migrated en masse while oligarchs with convertible currency bought up the country. They now control the government. One businessman and newly elected mayor is currently under house arrest for (allegedly) pinching one billion US dollars from state coffers in a heist dubbed “the bank robbery of the century”. He claims his co-conspirator was the presently imprisoned ex-Prime Minister Vlad Filat. Moldova’s recent history is a bleak story of corruption.
Yet this rational fear for what the future will bring has inspired Moldovans to look to their sporting heritage for a national identity. They found one in Trânta, a traditional, millennia-old offshoot of Greco-Roman wrestling guided by a heady cocktail of strength, honour and mythology.
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