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Defeats Pinned on Refs

Wrestling: Americans Henson, Slay question officiating in respective gold-medal matches.


SYDNEY, Australia — Sammie Henson's scream was primal, expressing hurt, anger and frustration in one gigantic burst.

Unable to bear his 4-3 loss to Namig Abdullayev of Azerbaijan in the gold-medal match of the 119-pound freestyle wrestling weight class Saturday, Henson sprinted off the mat and under the stands of the Sydney Exhibition Center, shrieking all the while. Finally overcome, he threw himself on the floor; John Smith, one of the U.S. co-head coaches, had to prop him up to get him to the competitors' locker room.

"These guys train a lifetime for this," Smith said of Henson, who sobbed throughout the medal ceremony and refused to talk to reporters. "They put in some long, hard years."

Henson's dream died hard--as did Brandon Slay's a few minutes later in the 167.5-pound class. And like Henson, Slay questioned the officials' calls in his defeat, a 4-0 decision won by four-time Olympian Alexander Leipold of Germany. Slay, of Colorado Springs, Colo., disputed a two-point penalty called against him for failing to get into a clinch position to start the second period of their scoreless match, and a second caution called against him, which put him at a 3-0 deficit and forced him to open up and virtually sealed his fate.

Slay said that when the wrestlers were instructed to get into a clinch, Leipold got his hands locked but complained to referee Borje Schoug of Sweden that Slay wasn't allowing him to do the same. Slay also said Leipold complained Slay was hurting his hands, drawing the third penalty point.

"He wasn't speaking. He was whining, like a baby crying," Slay said. "He was acting for the officials, hoping they'd give him the points, and they did.

"It's tough to know he's the Olympic [gold] medalist and he didn't take one shot at me. He didn't earn a point the entire match."

Leipold, the 1994 world champion and three-time world silver medalist, said Slay moved backward to elude his hold when they were supposed to be locked in the clinch. "I try three times and he goes back, back, back," Leipold said. "I tried to catch him but he got my fingers, and that's a foul. It was not a bad foul, but he gave me no chance to grab him, and so it was one point."

Slay said politics may have influenced the outcome, because U.S. wrestlers were 12-0 before Henson's match. "I have a belief that politics is a huge part of the sport, but I'm not going to put any blame on that," he said. "It's unfortunate to know you can give your all and be totally confident you're going to win, but it's taken out of your hands.

"This is the worst I've ever felt after a loss in my life, hands down. Every time I lost, I said, 'Brandon, it's your fault. You made this mistake and this mistake, and you have to fix it.' But in this case, there's really nothing to learn from this match. I gave it my all."

Said Bruce Burnett, the U.S. head coach: "I've been doing this for 10 years and it's pretty confusing to me, too. Clearly, the wrestling was taken out of the hands of the wrestlers. I'm excited tomorrow is my last day on this job. . . . How many technical points did you see scored? I saw one aggressive wrestler, and that aggressive wrestler was wearing the red [U.S.] singlet."

Henson, a St. Louis, Mo., native who is assistant wrestling coach at the University of Oklahoma, had beaten Abdullayev in the final of the 1998 world championships, 3-1. However, Abdullayev got an early jump on him Saturday with a one-point takedown and another two-point move in the first minute. Henson gained one point on a caution against Abdullayev and another on a takedown before the first period ended.

Henson scored another takedown in the fourth minute to tie the bout at 3-3, but Abdullayev got Henson in a leg lock for another point.

Although Abdullayev appeared at least three times to yank Henson's singlet--which is illegal--Abdullayev was never penalized. According to Burnett, Abdullayev also illegally put his fingers into Henson's mouth, a move called a fish hook. In addition, Burnett said referee Abbass Namazian of Iran didn't allow Henson time to work and score points in several situations.

"It was obvious two or three different times the athlete from Azerbaijan grabbed his singlet to avoid going to the mat," Burnett said. "When Sammie had pressure on his head, we needed that point. . . . You can't protest medal matches. But it was a situation where we needed the point.

"I don't think anything deliberate was done, but he [Namazian] avoided making calls when he should have."

Henson's father, Bob, watched the bout but didn't talk to his son afterward. "He'll come out of this, and when he does, he'll come to me," the elder Henson said. "He's hurting right now.

"If Sammie really felt that everything was really right, he would have come off and he'd have hugged the other guy. To see him come off like that, I know it's tough for him. He's not going to be pleasant for a couple of hours, but then he'll be all right. He'll adjust."


Terry Brands and Lincoln McIlravy, former Iowa wrestlers, lost close decisions in the semifinals, but came back later for bronze medals.

Brands beat Damir Zakhartdinov of Uzbekistan, 3-2, at 127 3/4 pounds for his bronze, and McIlravy got his by defeating Sergei Demchenko of Belarus, 3-1, at 152 pounds.

McIlravy lost in the semifinals, 6-3, in overtime to Canadian Daniel Igali.

Brands, who came out of retirement to try to match the gold medal won by brother Tom Brands in Atlanta, lost, 6-5, in the semifinals to Alireza Dabir of Iran.


The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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