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From Russia with love: Wrestling exports turn Asian stars

Ilyas Bekbulatov will be competing for Uzbekistan at the 2020 Asian Championships Stanislav Krasilnikov\TASS via Getty Images

New Delhi - Last September, Philippines boxing icon and politician Manny Pacquiao forwarded an unusual proposition in his role as senator in the country's parliament. Pacquiao sought the naturalisation of Russian freestyle wrestler Egor Dmitriev by Senate Bill 969, otherwise known as "An Act Granting Philippine Citizenship to Egor Dmitriev."

Helped no doubt by the weight of Pacquiao's significant celebrity, the bill passed and Dmitriev, who had competed for seven years as a Russian athlete, earned the opportunity to turn out in a Phillipino singlet. At the Asian Championships in New Delhi, Dmitriev, who competes in the 57kg freestyle division, will be his adopted country's sole representative.

Dmitriev isn't the only Russian wrestler who has switched nationalities. Bahrain's Haji Mohamad Ali and Alibeg Alibegov were both born in Russia, as was Qatar's Ibrahim Abdulrahman.

"There are 10 weight categories for Kyrgyzstan here and of them, four are from Russia," says Daulet Karybaev, an official with the Kazakhstan and Asian Wrestling federations.

Kazakhstan, too, has its share of Russian emigres, including two-time World medalist Nurislam Sanayev. For all his achievements, Sanayev isn't even the most renowned Russian to have switched nationalities. The most recent transfer was 2017 European champion Ilyas Bekbulatov, who will be hoping to become cross continental champion in New Delhi having taken up Uzbek citizenship in December last year.

Indeed, the phenomenon of Russian origin wrestlers competing for other countries is quite common in the sport.

"Wrestlers from Russia are all around the world now. They are in Spain, France, Hungary and Poland," says Daulet. In the 2016 Olympics for example, five of the wrestlers (six if you include the one actually representing Russia) competing in the 97kg division began their careers representing Russia.

There is a very simple demand and supply explanation for this migration. Russia has wrestlers in droves and other countries have money. While the very best Russian wrestlers have no shortage of sponsors, there can only be so many places in the Russian national teams. For those not on the very top of the pyramid, funding can be precarious.

"Kazakhstan does not give its wrestlers so much money, but it is certainly better than in Russia," Daulet explains. "Nurislam Sanayev gets a stipend of $1000 per month. In Russia, he would probably make maybe $200 or $300. Then there is more money if he wins tournaments. If you win the World Championship, you get $15000. If you win the Asian Championship you will get 1 million tenge or $3000. Then you also get a house, car and other things."

While money is a significant motivation, it isn't the only one. For many Russians, the competition is simply too much within their own country in contrast to that on offer in neighbouring countries.

"In Russia, the level of competition is very high and all of them dream to go for the Olympics. He did not get a chance, so they go to another country," says Daulet.

Take for instance Adam Batirov, who learned his trade in Dagestan but now wrestles for Bahrain. Batirov never made it big as a Russian wrestler, edged out by his illustrious brother Mavlet who would earn two Olympic gold medals. Ultimately, it was a move to Bahrain that enabled Adam to medal for the first time at the World Championships in 2018 at the age of 33.

Bekbulatov agrees with Batirov's choice.

"In order to be successful in Russia it is necessary to constantly be in good shape. In my career I have had certain injuries because of my age and I have had difficulties making weight too," he says.

But if the Russian wrestlers get a chance to fulfill their ambitions in a less stressful environment, their host countries benefit as well. In Pacquiao's bill to naturalise Dmitriev, the boxing great explains as much.

"Due to the lack of programs, technology, training, equipment, promotion, and pool of athletes in this Olympic sport, the country is in a competitive disadvantage. With this, foreign athletes can help in honing the development and skills of this sport," Pacquiao says in the bill's explanatory note.

For many countries, importing stronger wrestlers from overseas is a necessary step to improve their own base.

"There is a short term plan for Qatar wrestling and a long term plan for Qatar wrestling too," says Qatar coach Gazarian Fardan, who himself is originally from Armenia. "We want to have wrestlers from our own country. We have about 500 young wrestlers and one day someone from there will represent our country. But for the short term we have wrestlers from Russia who compete. This is the same in other sports also. Now we have (high jumper) Mutaz Barshim who is a World Champion who is born in Qatar. But in the past there were many athletes who competed for Qatar after getting citizenship too."

There are also some who aren't too enamoured by the prospect of foreign wrestlers taking spots in the national team - mostly natural born wrestlers of that country.

"Sometimes the wrestlers from Kazakhstan get angry because Nurislam is taking their place in the national team," Daulet says. "But even after Nurislam came to Kazakshtan he had to earn his place in the team. He lost in the first national championships he played but after that he's never lost. He always wins a medal in every tournament he competes in. He says if I lose, then you replace me."

While Russian wrestlers like Batirov competing for Arab countries stick out by virtue of their unchanged Russian names, Sanayev has done his best to adapt to his adopted country.

"He's not like Rustom Assakalov (the Greco Roman wrestler who was born in Russia but now competes for Uzbekistan and has won a bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships). Assakalov competes for Uzbekistan but he still lives in Adygea in Russia. Nurislam has changed his name (Nurislam was orignally Arthas) and his religion from Buddhism to Islam. He lives in Kazakhstan and is working here for the future," says Daulet.

Eventually though, most countries as Qatar coach Fardan says, would like to produce talents from the grassroots. Kazakhstan, too, is thinking along those lines.

"Nurislam came to Kazakhstan in 2014. But after the Rio Olympics we stopped encouraging Russian wrestlers to come to Kazakhstan," says Daulet.

Still as the examples of Philippines Dmitriev and Uzbekistan's Bekbulatov suggest, there will always be countries on the lookout for Russian talent. But such is the multitude of talent coming out of Russia that there's no real concern in that country that the pool of talent will be drained away anytime soon.

"The Russians don't seem to mind that their wrestlers are competing for other countries," Daulet says. "Even when Sanayev won a medal at the World Championships, they were cheering for him. After all he is still a Russian for them."