Dagestan, a mostly Muslim region in the south of Russia on the northwest coast of the Caspian Sea, is known for the stark beauty of its mountain landscapes, for its many small ethnic groups, for a violent and long-simmering Islamist insurgency — and for its wrestlers.
Thousands of young boys here dream of becoming famous and honored wrestlers, like the many lithe and muscly Olympic champions who came before them. Buvaisar Saitiev won three gold medals, for example, and Mavlet Batirov two.
Towns and villages pour resources into the sport, hiring coaches and transforming movie theaters into gyms. The young boys turn out to stretch and strengthen their muscles, and grapple on the mats before their cheering friends.
Men from Dagestan say they have always wrestled, in traditional bouts between mountain villages. Today, though, the region embraces and loves wrestling not so much for teaching its young men to fight as for keeping them out of the fight with insurgents, offering an alternative to Islamist terrorism.