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How an influx of eastern European athletes brought British wrestling back from the brink

A 21st-century story of immigration, identity and the Olympic dream.

 

 

In May 2004, the European Union enlarged, chiefly eastwards. Existing EU members had the option of imposing quotas on immigration from those countries. The United Kingdom was one of only three member nations (along with Sweden and Ireland) that decided to allow unrestricted immigration (or freedom of movement). The government rationale for this decision was multiform: New Labour stood for globalisation as both welcome and inevitable; the economy was booming; other countries were expected to open their doors; and Home Office studies estimated that the number of migrant workers coming to the UK was likely to be less than 13,000 in the first year. But the Home Office estimates proved to be wildly inaccurate. Over twenty times the numbers expected came to the UK, and kept coming.

In 2016, Britain voted to leave the EU. The key issues for Leave voters – as demonstrated by Matthew Goodwin and Caitlin Milazzo in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations – were the rate of, and control over, immigration.

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The big men approach each other across the mat and drop into a simian crouch. The man in blue lets his left hand fall and touches the mat with the tips of his fingers, perhaps to orientate himself precisely.

The men lean towards each other. Their heads touch, momentarily. The man in red puts an arm on his opponent’s shoulder, the man in blue brushes it off then puts his left hand on the other’s neck. The man in red pushes his opponent away and steps back. They could be engaged in a new ritual of greeting.

But no. These men are wrestlers, in the 97kg category; each weighs around 15 stone of muscle. The man in red is Amarhajy Mahamedau from Belarus, the man in blue is British and his name is Leon Rattigan.

Neither looks into the other’s eyes. Their vision is focused just below, as concentrated as a hawk’s, each taking in his opponent’s tiniest movements. They see nothing outside a narrow orbit, but everything within it. They must not miss a thing, for their opponent seeks to punish the slightest error.

Mahamedau and Rattigan grab hold of each other – hand on upper arm, shoulder, neck, or gripping the other’s wrist – and probe and jostle for an opening, pull away, come again. They wrestle for two rounds of three minutes each, and the rules dictate that they must both be active, always looking to make something happen. Each time they break Rattigan wrings his hands, as if shaking pins and needles out of them, and steps forward.

Suddenly Rattigan drops to his knees and makes a grab for Amarhajy’s legs, but he can’t get a hold. Then, before his opponent can take advantage of his lowly position, Leon bounces back to his feet, remarkably agile for such a big man. “Wrestling uses every muscle in your body for every minute of the competition,” according to Henry Cejudo, in American Victory, the account of his journey to Olympic gold in 2008. “The average person in average shape couldn’t last more than one minute of one round… It’s like running ten miles while moving every part of your body and, at the same time, enduring someone of equal weight hanging on your back and choking you.”

Rattigan leads with his left, going for Mahamedau’s neck or shoulder, keeping his right arm back, then reaching for the opponent’s wrist. Mahamedau keeps pushing him off. This happens a number of times, neither man able to make a breakthrough.  Then, when Rattigan reaches forward again, Mahamedau appears to tug Rattigan’s shoulder and turn his momentum against him. Rattigan falls to the floor and Mahamedau is on top of him. Two points go up on the scorecard. But Mahamedau wants more. Reaching under Rattigan’s chest and locking his hands, he lifts Rattigan up off the mat and twists his body, bringing the British wrestler over with him. Another two points. It’s 4-0 to the Belarussian.

Although there have been regional wrestling traditions, perhaps most notably in Cornwall and Lancashire, freestyle Olympic wrestling has never been a mainstream British sport. Our last Olympic medal was a single bronze at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The previous one was also bronze at the Helsinki Games in 1952. The one before that was in the 1920s, another bronze.

The British Wrestling membership secretary, Trevor Hoskins, is also chair of England Midlands Region, and coach and club secretary at Middleton and Wirksworth Freestyle Wrestling Club in Derbyshire, stalwart of a sport that, like most, relies on the commitment and generosity of volunteers. “If you want to raise standards,” Hoskins explains, “the place to start is not with the athletes but with the coaches.”

In 2002 British Wrestling recruited a Ukrainian, Nikolai Kornyeyev, as national coach. This was hardly without precedent. Perhaps there was a particular crisis of confidence in this country at the turn of the century: in 1999 the ECB appointed Zimbabwean Duncan Fletcher as English cricket’s first foreign national coach, while Sven-Göran Eriksson became the England football team’s manager in 2001. But it was also symptomatic of a sea change in Olympic sport. After Sebastian Coe became chairman of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, he said, “It is very simple. If quality coaches aren’t available here, you go for the best available elsewhere.”

In an extensively researched article in 2011, Alan Hubbard revealed on InsideTheGames.biz that, “At least 21 of the 26 sports in which Team GB will compete in 2012 will have performance directors or senior coaches who have been expensively head-hunted… from four continents and 28 nations.”

“Wrestlers in the UK have one problem: poor basic technique,” Kornyeyev told the Independent. In 2007 he took on fellow Ukrainian coach Anotole Sergei as his assistant. He also recruited wrestlers from eastern Europe and Ukraine to help train, and work as sparring partners to Britain’s Olympic hopefuls. Among them were male wrestlers Krasimir Krastanov from Bulgaria and Myroslav Dykun from Ukraine; and female wrestlers Olga Butkevych and Yana Stadnik from Ukraine.

“Our athletes, although they had the basic potential, really needed the world-class training partners to allow them to develop to the standard so they could achieve at a world level,” said British Wrestling’s performance director, Shaun Morley, in 2008. “There is no programme to naturalise them,” he insisted, “and never will be.”

It soon became clear, however, that these sparring partners were superior wrestlers to the British. The process of naturalising them got under way, with the 2012 London Games the target.

“The roles have reversed – the British wrestlers are now effectively the training partners for the imports,” said the British champion wrestler Mark Cocker in 2011. “I had assurances from British Wrestling that they were not being brought in to take the place of British athletes and that’s exactly what’s happened.” Home-grown disenchantment was widespread.

Shaun Morley was unrepentant. “At the end of the day they have been here for a substantial period of time, made substantial improvements to the programme and put us in a place that we wouldn’t otherwise have been in,” he told Nick Hope of BBC Sport. There was the pertinent issue of finance, too. “Our funding [from UK Sport, the country’s elite performance agency] is based on our success,” Morley continued. “If we don’t achieve a podium in 2012, it’s highly likely that our funding will either be cut or it will be finished altogether, and therefore we need to put the programme in a position where we develop some legacy.”

Yana Stadnik, fighting in the 48kg category, was one of the best prospects. “I actually understand British people,” she said. “If I was in Ukraine and people came to my country and took my place I would say hold on, go away. But… when I wrestle for Great Britain I feel no difference to when I competed for Ukraine, because I put all of my heart into it. I wish to win some great medals for Great Britain.”

The citizenship of athletes has long been a contentious issue, going back to Zola Budd, the barefoot South African who ran for Great Britain at the 1984 Olympic Games, and beyond. In recent years the trade in African runners to oil-rich nations has been well-documented.

The new British team gained initial success. In 2010 Myroslav Dykun won a Commonwealth Games gold medal for England. When Yana Stadnik won silver at the 2010 European Championships in Azerbaijan it was Britain’s first major international medal in 20 years. Olga Butkevych got bronze in the 59kg category at the European Wrestling Championships in Dortmund in April 2011. Prospects looked better than they had in many years, and the British Olympic Association (BOA) granted British Wrestling three guaranteed host-nation berths for the 2012 Olympics.

As the London Games came closer, however, the controversy rumbled on. Stadnik’s application for full citizenship (necessary for Olympic representation) was not granted in time. Both home-grown and recent arrivals stumbled. Despite winning four medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, British wrestlers failed to achieve BOA-approved targets at an Olympic qualification tournament.

The 96kg British champion Leon Rattigan had won bronze at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi but suffered a dip in form at the crucial moment. He tweeted: “Criteria was top six in tournament, I finished seventh, but it wasn’t enough in the end, thanks for all of the support #dreamover.”

In May 2012 the British Olympic Association reduced its allocation of host-nation berths to British Wrestling from three to a single one, in the women’s 55kg division.

“There is a standard across Team GB that must be upheld,” said Team GB’s chef de mission, Andy Hunt.

“I don’t have a problem with the foreign athletes, most of them are very nice people and good luck to them,” British wrestler Mark Cocker said, as he saw money being routed exclusively to nurturing potential medal winners. “But I really do believe that UK Sport funding will actually have the opposite effect of a positive legacy on British wrestling.”

Only Olga Butkevych qualified for the London Olympics in 2012. She was placed 11th out of 19 competitors in the 55kg final standings (in September of that year she would win bronze, becoming the first British wrestler ever to win a medal at the World Championships).

Britain’s new immigrant wrestlers were good, but they weren’t the best. Britain won no medals at the 2012 Olympics. Funding from UK Sport for high performance training was terminated.

During this period British Olympic funding was becoming ruthlessly meritocratic. Support for elite athletes in Olympic disciplines was both logical and a prisoner of that logic. As Jem Lawson, the urbane chair of British Wrestling, explains, “The more success a sport achieves, the more money it is given, the more success it achieves, and so on. Conversely, without funding, elite athletes cannot hope to reach the highest level. Because, notwithstanding its amateur ideals, each Olympic discipline is now fully professional, funded country by country.”

Before the Berlin Wall came down, the East German practice of government funding of its athletes was widely scorned. It is a model that every developed country has since copied.

In such a system (perhaps in any system) there are winners and losers. After 2012, not only wrestling but also weight-lifting and badminton saw their funding from UK Sport discontinued. Lawson points out that, in contrast, today winter sports such as curling and skeleton receive more than £5m across a four-year build-up to the next Winter Olympics in 2022. In these cases British athletes spotted opportunity in neglected sports and seized it, winning medals and the funding that comes with them. British Wrestling’s particular handicap is that many other countries have a stronger tradition of wrestling.

Hugh Robertson, chairman of the British Olympic Association, dismissed notions that the ruthless “no compromise” pursuit of medals had taken precedence over encouraging participation in sport.

“It annoys me,” Robertson said in 2016, “because I think it’s a completely false comparison. The basketball argument started raging in 2008, and there is a really good argument about its effects on inner-city participation and lower-income groups… But I think it would be a very, very sad day if we ever gave up wanting to succeed at the Olympics.”

On 25 May this year, however, at the behest of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, UK Sport announced a “unique” funding support package for British basketball to “help support GB athletes to continue to compete on the world stage in order to inspire communities to engage positively in sport activity”. Unusually for UK Sport – our high performance agency – no Olympic medal target range is attached to this funding.

The minister for sport and civil society Tracey Crouch said: “Basketball has the potential to do a great deal of good, particularly by inspiring young people in our towns and cities to play sport.” Perhaps this intelligent recalibration of priorities will lead to a more nuanced way of funding sport in this country.

However professionalised sport becomes, luck continues to affect both success and publicity. Jem Lawson recalls an incident at the recent Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast of Australia: the wrestler Syerus Eslami won a bronze medal in his 86kg category (completing a hat-trick of bronze medals for England; Wales won a silver and a bronze). After his win, Syerus hoisted the England coach, Anatolii Kharytoniuk, on his shoulders.

Someone threw them a St George’s flag, and they did a celebratory circuit of the playing area: the English grandson of Iranian immigrants, with his Ukrainian coach. “It made a wonderful image,” Jem says. “Unfortunately the Team England media co-ordinator had just advised reporters and photographers to head for the badminton courts, so most of them missed it.”


Syerus Eslami celebrates winning bronze for England at the Commonwealth Games

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The Belarussian leads 4-0.

The big men grab a wrist, a shoulder, shake each other off. Rattigan reaches out for Mahamedau’s neck and seems, as Mahamedau drops back, to stroke it. They could be playing some variation of rock, paper, scissors.

Suddenly they grab for each other, it’s impossible to tell who the aggressor is, perhaps both men are attacking and defending simultaneously. Neither prevails, and they are propelled apart, rebalance, come forward again. Rattigan throws his right arm forward, a rapier thrust to his opponent’s midriff, but Mahamedau skips back. A bell goes for the end of the first, three-minute round.

When you don’t know wrestling, it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that nothing much is happening. In fact, every feint, every twitch, is a gesture of potential mayhem. “I give you that hand there, I give you it for a reason, it’s like a maggot for a fish. ‘Cause I know you’re going to grab it,” said the Lancashire wrestler John Rigby in the documentary film Catch: The Hold Not Taken (2005). “And that’s what I want you to do, I want you to grab that wrist. And then I make my move… I’m looking two moves ahead, it’s like a game of chess.”

The second round resumes as the first ended, Rattigan seeking an opening but cagey, wary of a counter-attack. The sport is so concentrated that time seems to elasticate. Thirty seconds have passed, when suddenly it happens.

Rattigan makes a grab for his opponent’s right foot, and although Mahamedau tries to hop away, Rattigan has hold and bounces after him. In trying to get his foot loose, however, Mahamedau makes himself vulnerable. Rattigan lets go of the foot and springs behind Mahamedau, and embraces him in a tight hug. Mahamedau reacts furiously. He reaches over his shoulder, tries to arm-lock Rattigan’s head and simultaneously to trip him. But it’s no good. It’s too late. Rattigan is not to be denied. He bends his knees then launches himself backwards, bringing the Belarussian sailing up and over him and crashing down to the mat. It’s a brilliant takedown.

Do watch it. It’s on YouTube. It’s like Mary Pierce’s outrageous between-the-legs shot against Monica Seles at the 2000 French Open, or Dennis Bergkamp’s swivel and pirouette goal against Newcastle in 2002. Even more breathtaking than the physical feat is the idea: to pick up this 15-stone man and leap backwards up into the air, twisting. It’s outlandish. One watches it and wonders, how did he think of that?

Johan Cruyff said of Dennis Bergkamp: “You play football with your head – your legs are there to help you.” So these wrestlers’ muscled limbs are only there to help their minds. Wrestling, like all great sport, is intelligence in action.


Britain’s Olga Butkevych: “wrestling gives you self-respect… but you also learn respect for others”

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Early in June this year the National Juniors Competition was held in Alfreton Leisure Centre, Derbyshire. Juniors covers an age range of eight up to 21, for women are not reckoned to reach full strength until, on average, the age of 23; men 27.

Olga Butkevych, Britain’s last Olympian wrestler, now coaches at the City of Manchester Club – a volunteer, like so many – and she had brought a cohort of young wrestlers to Alfreton. Butkevych married a British man and is now a full-time mother with a two-year-old daughter. Looking back to 2012 she says, “After the Olympic Games I felt embarrassed. Like I had done something wrong. My husband helped me to see that I should be proud, and now I am proud. How many people get to be in Olympics? This is my country now.”

Asked about prospects for her young protégés, Butkevych says, “The trouble is that without money sport is a hobby, and people who love a sport, when they leave university, then they have to work. Then you cannot reach the highest level.”

Jatinder Rakhra had also brought young wrestlers to the competition, from the West London Wrestling Club he runs in Southall, with Leon Rattigan his fellow coach there. The son of a postman who came to the UK from Punjab, India, Jit was taken to a wrestling club aged four. “I hated it,” he says now. “I was tiny. I always used to lose! But the more I grew, the more I won.” At the age of 16, Rakhra took himself from Slough to Manchester to attend sixth form there, living with a host family, so he could be near the British Wrestling Academy in Salford and receive the best coaching, from Ukrainians Nikolai Kornyeyev and Anotole Sergei. By 2008 Rakhra was British junior champion at 55kg, and representing Great Britain, while studying for a degree in Sports and Leisure Management at Bolton University.

When he graduated in 2010, Rakhra wanted to wrestle as much as possible. So just as he’d packed his bag at 16 and moved from Slough to Manchester, now he made his way to Lviv in Ukraine. He lived in a cheap hostel, learned to speak Russian and was welcomed by wrestling clubs, with whom he trained twice a day.

When Rakhra came back home in 2012, however, ready to train with the British squad for the 2016 Olympics, there was no funding. Rakhra had to earn money, start a career. And there were other considerations. He had fallen in love with a Ukrainian wrestler, Oksana. In time she joined him in London, they married, and now have a six-month-old daughter.

One of the fascinations of watching the succession of youngsters of all ages on the mat in Alfreton Leisure Centre, is to see how different weight categories appear to perform quite different sports. If the heavier wrestlers move like bears, conserving their energy, the lighter ones are feline.

Yana Stadnik also married a fellow wrestler: Leon Rattigan. She still competes, as Yana Rattigan. Watch her on YouTube: Yana moves so fast that her opponents often appear bamboozled. In the blink of an eye she has tripped or flipped them and they’re lying on the mat with no idea of how they got there and Stadnik is on top pinning them to the ground. As Kane Charig, Welsh silver medallist at 65kg at the recent Commonwealth Games, puts it, “You’ve got two super-athletic cats on the mat trying to outdo each other.”

A fast-moving succession of matches take place on two adjoining mats in the large, echoing hall. The blue mats are 12m x 12m, with red and yellow circles within them. Two scorers sit at desks on opposite sides of each mat. There are hundreds of people watching, many of them parents and other relatives.

The referees blow their whistles, high-pitched in the hall. Otherwise, what’s striking is how calm the atmosphere is. In each bout two martial artists are trying to outfight their opponent with every fibre of muscle and every brain cell, yet most coaches sit placidly on their chairs in the corner, issuing occasional single words of advice. Spectators watch with keen attention. There is no hysteria.

Trevor Hoskins has been involved in the sport for 25 years, and says that membership of the British Wrestling Association has doubled since 2010.

“It’s the most diverse sport you can imagine,” according to Jatinder Rakhra. In his West London Wrestling Club there are Bulgarians, Sikhs, Georgians, Afghans, Pakistanis. “A big reason black and ethnic minority parents like it for their children is because of the discipline it instils,” he says. Henry Cejudo describes finding respite in the gym from the insecure poverty of his Chicano immigrant childhood. “The wrestling room was a great place to lose your anger, as long as you could keep your head. I needed to calm down. I needed to realise that the winner wasn’t being judged by bloodstains on the mat, but shoulders on the mat. By points.”

Olga Butkevych says something similar. “Wrestling gives you self-respect. You know how to defend yourself. No one is going to bully you. But also you learn respect for others. When you fight you see that your opponent is like you. We are all the same humans.”

In this magazine in June, Tobias Cremer posited a new divide in Western democracies pitting “a vision of a clearly defined (and confined) national identity against the globalist ideals of universalism and diversity”. Looking around the hall at Alfreton Leisure Centre this vexed question of national identity felt like a phantasm, an illusory attempt to fix the present. It cannot be done. Identity is mercurial, ever changing.

Alex Watson, who teaches Sanskrit at Harvard University, wrote in Who Am I? The Self/Subject According to Psychoanalytic Theory, “It was part of the genius of Freud that he… did not accept the existence of any single entity that could be put forward as an answer to the question ‘Who am I’ or ‘What am I?’ We neither are nor contain anything that remains identical over time. Even at one moment of time, we are not one thing. Rather we are a multiplicity of interacting systems and processes.” As individuals; as a society all the more so.

Or, as Anand Menon, professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at King’s College London, succinctly puts it, “National identity is crystal-clear. Until you try to define it.”

The precipitous naturalisation of foreign wrestlers ten years ago was surely misjudged. It denied the ambitions of native-born athletes (though their hopes had been inflated by the medal-chasing priorities of Olympic sport). Mark Cocker’s prediction proved astute: British wrestling sank into the doldrums.

Those immigrant wrestlers, however, have become a part of British wrestling culture, and ten years on the grass roots is once more thriving.

The rules and scoring system of wrestling are, like those of any sport, arcane, almost random. Leon Rattigan only receives two points for his spectacular throw, which seems inexplicable to an outsider. The score is 4-2. But he comes back to the middle with a little bounce, almost a Muhammad Ali shuffle, reinvigorated.

The wrestlers parry as they did before, Mahamedau on the defensive. Rattigan gains a hold that’s not quite a pin to the floor and racks up one more point. The big men are visibly tiring, and the thrust of energy required to make a breakthrough when wrestlers are so evenly matched is slipping away. Rattigan makes one more burst forward, but Mahamedau twists desperately away and out of range. They lock together, and drop until their torsos are at right angles to their legs. They do not move. They are spent.

The bell sounds and that is it. The wrestlers break apart, shake each other’s hand. Without the scorecard you wouldn’t know who has won, who has lost. The big men recall the words of Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics: the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

They trudge to the middle of the mat and shake the referee’s hand. The referee then takes each man by a wrist and they stand either side of him. He raises the Belarussian’s arm, winner by four points to three. Each man goes to the other’s corner and shakes hands with his opponent’s coaches. Then they walk away from the mat.

Tim Pears’s most recent novel is “The Wanderers” (Bloomsbury)

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next war