IF YOU didn’t know that Viorel Etko had just won Scotland’s first wrestling medal in 20 years you might have guessed from his celebrations. In fact, you would probably have said 50, a hundred or more.
After winning his bronze medal match in the men’s 61kg freestyle, Etko danced, he leapt from one end of the arena to the other, he did somersaults, and he grabbed first a Saltire, then a Lion Rampant, before laying the Saltre in the centre of the mat and flopping theatrically on top of it. He seemed to enjoy his moment. And he wanted everybody else to enjoy it, too. “These guys paid a lot of money to come and watch,” said Etko.
There might not be a more popular medallist, nor a more fascinating and moving back-story, from Etko’s arrival in London as an asylum-seeker from his native Moldova in 1998, to his doomed attempt to represent Scotland at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, to his retirement after Delhi and comeback here in Glasgow.
He only decided to try and compete at these Games in February. “It was the best decision of my life to come out of retirement and come back for one last go,” he said before he was presented with his medal by Michael Cavanagh, the Commonwealth Games Scotland chairman and himself a former wrestler who represented Scotland at the 1978 Games in Brisbane. Cavanagh has been hugely supportive of Etko and, not surprisingly, there was a minor breach of protocol when he gave the wrestler not only his medal, but also a hug.
It was an emotional occasion. Etko’s nine-year-old son, Leon, was in the front row of the crowd, and his dad kissed him as he passed. It was the first time Leon had seen his father compete. “He’s had a go at wrestling but he loves gymnastics and he thinks football is the best thing since sliced bread,” said Etko, who is married to Laura Davies, the former gymnast who competed for Scotland at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.
The couple now run a gym in Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, near their home in Oldmeldrum. They met in another gym, in Springburn, Glasgow, where Etko moved after two years in London. “My first impression of Glasgow was the very warm welcome,” said Etko.
“Although it’s a cold country, I lived for many years in Glasgow and the people made me feel very welcome. That’s why I probably stayed so long. And I married a Scot. But the people, definitely, was the main attraction. They’re warm people. Moldova is like Scotland: a small country but warm people.”
Now 36, Etko pointed out that, if he lives another four years in Scotland, “it’ll be half and half,” though few would question his allegiance to his adopted country. He left his actual home because: “I had visions of being an Olympian but I couldn’t see myself achieving that in Moldova so I had to pack my bags and move on. The life there is too harsh. There’s not a system with support like we have in Scotland and Britain.”
Cavanagh has said that Etko has been instrumental in raising other Scottish wrestlers’ standards and ambitions – it was telling that another two Scots, Shannon Hawke and Sarah Jones, also reached bronze medal finals yesterday – but it hasn’t been easy for him. As an asylum-seeker, his options were limited, and Cavanagh tried in vain to help him get a passport to compete for Scotland at the 2002 Games. Etko travelled to Manchester and camped outside the athletes’ village in the hope that his passport application would be approved in time – it wasn’t. It wasn’t until Dehli in 2010 that he was finally able to pull on a Scottish vest at a Commonwealth Games.
Will Etko now retire for good? “I’ll probably wait until I’m 65 to retire again. I’d retire earlier but I don’t have a private plan.”
After Etko’s heroics, another Scot, Sarah Jones, faced the Indian wrestler Navjot Kaur in the 69kg freestyle, the 31-year-old from Edinburgh losing over the two rounds, but able to hold her head high after progressing so far in the competition.
Earlier, Shannon Hawke’s bid for a bronze medal in the women’s 53kg freestyle lasted only 31 seconds before she was overpowered by Mpho Madi, of South Africa. The 18-year-old from Stirling was not too despondent. “I knew going out it was going to be a tough match,” she said. “I wish it didn’t finish so quickly but I gave it all I had.
“In four years’ time I’m looking to step up my performance. I’m close to a medal in a home games and I’m sure I can get even closer to the medals and take home one in the Gold Coast.”
Hawke reached the bronze match after beating her fellow Scot Jayne Clason in the first round, and she wasn’t entirely sure what went wrong against Madi. “We have it recorded and my coach will go through it with me,” she said. “We’ll look at what mistakes I made.”
It seemed harsh for her medal hopes to be dashed so quickly, almost before the crowd had settled. “It’s scary that way,” admitted Hawke. “In other sports you get to go right to the end. We’ve got six minutes to do what we can do, but it can be over in ten seconds. I’ve won a match in seven seconds when I was younger. It’s a shame. You don’t get to show everybody what you can do.”
But she will have lots of time for that, since her real ambition lies seven years hence. “I’ll only be 25 when the  Olympics come around, so I’ve got years to improve. My next big goal is the Gold Coast [Commonwealth Games] then the Olympics after that. I won’t be too devastated if I don’t make the Olympics in two years’ time.”