Wrestling: Ukraine wrestler Belenyuk grapples prejudice, funding woes before Rio

AFP , Wednesday 27 Jul 2016

Wrestler Zhan Belenyuk (AFP)
Wrestler Zhan Belenyuk (AFP)

Taunted as a child over his Rwandese background, Greco-Roman wrestler Zhan Belenyuk has shrugged off the insults to become one of Ukraine's leading Olympic medal hopes.

But the 25-year-old world champion son of a Ukrainian seamstress Svetlana and a Rwandese pilot has threatened to find another country to fight for if Ukraine does not come up with promised financial support.

Belenyuk's father Vincent, who studied aviation in the former Soviet Union, was killed in Rwanda's civil war in the 1990s. Belenyuk grew up in the Ukrainian capital and proudly went on to represent his homeland.

As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, racism has marked sporting events in Ukraine however.

Ukraine's national football team and its leading club Dynamo Kiev were ordered to play matches behind closed doors this season because of racism -- including one incident that saw black fans attacked during a game against Chelsea.

Belenyuk insists he has learnt to brush off racist abuse.

"There were instances (of racism) but they were trifles. All on a mundane level," Belenyuk told AFP.

"In Ukraine racial tension does not really exist, even if some people might try something like that now," he said.

"Offending a world champion wrestler would be risky business."

Funding trouble

More of a problem is a struggle with the Ukraine sports authorities over promised funds he says have not been provided.

Belenyuk, who represents AC Lichtenfels in the German Wrestling Bundesliga, earned his ticket to Rio when he won gold in the 85 kg category at last year's World Wrestling Championships in Las Vegas.

But Ukraine's top wrestler has threatened to adopt another citizenship if Ukraine does not meet financial commitments made to athletes.

"I was supposed to get 7,000 hryvnia ($275) a month, that's 84,000 hryvnia a year," Belenyuk said. "I didn't receive that. No one explained why. Everyone just brings up the armed conflict in our country."

The Ukrainian government has had to tighten its belt to fund a conflict against pro-Russian separatist insurgents in the country's east, which has left about 9,500 dead since it erupted in April 2014.

"I understand that the money has been sacrificed on the 'anti-terror' operation," Belenyuk said, referring to the Ukrainian army's name for its operation. Ukraine's sports authorities have denied that athletes have paid the price for the military intervention and the rebuilding of the conflict-wracked region.

Finance Minister, Natalie Jaresko, said last year that Kiev was spending between 5 and 7 million dollars a day to defend its war-torn east.

"All ministries had to partly cut their budgets and give money to the army," said Pavlo Bulgak, an aide to Ukrainian sports minister Ihor Zhdanov. "But this doesn't mean that we took athletes' money away from them and gave it to the armed forces."

The head of Ukraine's wrestling federation, Vitaly Voloshin, said Belenyuk's grievances were legitimate, deploring that Ukrainian gymnast Oleg Stepko -- who now competes for Azerbaijan -- had made more by winning a medal at the European Games last year than an average Ukrainian professional athlete makes in a lifetime.

Belenyuk said Russia and Azerbaijan -- countries he said cared about their athletes -- had offered him citizenship and financial incentives to relinquish his Ukrainian passport.

But the Kiev-raised wrestler -- who occasionally returns to his hometown, where he shares a one-bedroom apartment with his mother -- has not yet given up on Ukraine.

"I'd like to carry on Ukraine's wrestling tradition and to make my personal contribution to the sport's history in the country," Belenyuk said, adding that he would only make a decision on citizenship after Rio.

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