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Georgians win gold, mindful of conflict at home

Aug. 13, 2008, 12:41 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) With violence at home weighing heavily in their thoughts, Georgian athletes won their first gold medals in Beijing on Wednesday, doubling their total from Summer Olympics competitions since 1996.

"It means very much for our country because of the conflict now," said Irakli Tsirekidze, who won gold in the men's 90-kilogram judo competition. "Thank you to my country, thank you to my people."

Just hours earlier, Manuchar Kvirkelia defeated China's Chang Yongxiang in the Greco-Roman wrestling 74-kg weight class for Georgia's first gold of the games, and its second overall.

On the judo mat, Tsirekidze, the 2007 world champion, appeared to point to the name of his country after winning a bout against a Russian opponent in the semifinals. When asked if it was a statement on the political situation, he refused to comment.

After his bout, he held his folded black belt over his heart.

Georgia has been embroiled in fighting with Russia over the region of South Ossetia for nearly a week. Witnesses say hundreds have been killed.

At a news conference after winning the gold, moderators asked reporters not to question Tsirekidze on political matters.

"It means a lot at this sad moment," Tsirekidze said of his victory. He did not comment further.

Georgia's athletes have talked for days about the difficulty of competing with their country in peril, and at one point Saturday, they contemplating leaving the Olympics.

But Kvirkelia said he wants the Olympics - and victories on the mats - to give his compatriots some solace.

"This is the biggest day for Georgia in the Olympics," Kvirkelia said. "Georgia is in a difficult situation. Maybe the gold medal will relieve the suffering of the people. I dedicate my medal to the whole country, and the people. I hope the Georgia people will be happy."

He added that he hoped the golds may also help put - or keep - Georgia on the map.

"I feel very happy and proud for my country," Kvirkelia said. "I proved the existence of Georgia in the world with my gold."

In a game broadcast on Georgian television and monitored at the Chaoyang Park venue by enough reporters for a gold medal match, Cristine Santanna and Andrezza Martins beat Russians Alexandra Shiryaeva and Natalya Uryadova 10-21, 22-20, 15-12.

The native Brazilians, who shopped for new citizenship to circumvent a quota of two teams per country, preserved their chance at an Olympic medal and offered their adopted homeland hope for even more.

On Sunday, silver medalist Natalia Paderina of Russia shared the medal podium with bronze winner Nino Salukvadze of Georgia in the women's 10-meter air pistol competition. Paderina put her arm around Salukvadze, then gave her a kiss on the cheek.

Russian tanks rumbled into the Georgian city of Gori on Wednesday and thrust deep into Georgian territory. Georgian officials said Gori was looted and bombed by the Russians.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said he accepted a cease-fire plan brokered by France that called for both sides to retreat to their original positions. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Tuesday that Russia was halting military action because Georgia had paid enough for its attack last Thursday on South Ossetia.

Saakashvili said Tuesday that Russia is trying to "destroy" the smaller nation, a former Soviet state and current U.S. ally who wants to join NATO.