Ahead of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, life seemed golden for Russia’s freestyle wrestling star Bilyal Makhov.
A 1.94m tall man-mountain from the Caucasus, conquering all before him in the 125kg weight division, Makhov was reigning Russian and world champion.
But then disaster struck.
At one of the Olympic warm-up tournaments in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Makhov suddenly felt unwell and was unable to compete.
He was rushed to the local hospital where the medics gave an extraordinary diagnosis — mercury poisoning. This was later confirmed after testing in a Moscow clinic.
The doctors said Makhov received a dose of mercury vapor, that could have killed an ordinary man. However, Makhov managed to battle back and stay alive.
The Dagestan-based Makhov, now 24, staged a full recovery and is now one of Russia’s best chances for gold at the London Games. However, the origin of the poisoning remains a mystery.
He refuses to suspect any of his rivals who were in contention for a place in the country’s Olympic squad at the time and says he has now put the terrifying incident behind him.
“How can I suspect any of my comrades as we lived under the same roof, practiced together day by day and ate the same food?” he said. “I don’t want to be disappointed in my friends. I just want to forget the incident as soon as possible.”
After rehabilitation, Makhov continued his attempts to qualify for the Beijing Games, but his bad luck continued as he injured his elbow and then his knee.
These setbacks resulted in defeat at the Russian championships, dashing his hopes of competing at Beijing.
Makhov said later that he was bitterly disappointed at missing out and was close to retiring. However, his friends and the support of his coach Magomed Guseinov convinced him to start training again.
Makhov’s talent and strong character paid off as he grabbed his second world title in 2009 in Denmark. Next year at the world championship in Moscow, he repeated his success to regain the status of the world’s top wrestler.
Now the three-time world champion comes into the London Olympics as a red-hot favorite for the gold medal in freestyle wrestling, where, unlike in the Greco-Roman style, hand holds are allowed below the waist.
Born in the Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, Makhov started his sporting career in martial arts when, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the country went mad for karate and kung fu.
The eight-year-old Makhov went in for karate training for almost a year before local wrestling coach Alibek Gadzhimagomedov invited him into his class.
The coach recommended his young prodigy to Guseinov, who was seeking rising talent in the heavyweight category in the fellow Caucasus and wrestling-crazy region of Dagestan.
After the move to Dagestan, Makhov, then 14, found himself in the company of some of the country’s wrestling legends — Sajid Sajidov, Kurmagomed Kermagomedov and Makhach Murtazaliev — at their base in the town of Khasavyurt.
Guseinov personally ordered him a custom-made 2m-long bed and assured Makhov a small, but regular, salary.
In 2005, he grabbed the world junior title and improved his results day by day before winning the senior Russian and the world freestyle titles in 2007.
“Plenty of European, world and Olympic champions were nurtured at our base in Khasavyurt. They all are worthy athletes,” Makhov said. “But only the Olympic champions receive top honors there. I want to win at London both to boost the glory of our Khasavyurt team and to repay my coach for all of his efforts.”