Update on potential of Russia wrestling at Worlds/Olympics

Updated: July 11, 2023

Photo: Fans wonder when past World/Olympic champions Kyle Snyder (right) and Russia’s Abdulrashid Sadulaev will again wrestle at 97kg. (WIN file photo)

By Bryan Van Kley

The United States vs. Russia is the great rivalry in men’s freestyle. However, it’s uncertain if Team USA will wrestle against the Russians or Belarussians at this September’s World Championships. Or even next summer’s Olympics for that matter. 

And it’s all because of Russia’s war with Ukraine. Time will tell how United World Wrestling handles the situation for the Worlds … and what the International Olympic Committee does for the 2024 Games in Paris. 

The IOC has passed along guidelines to the various sports federations who manage the Olympic sports to follow in regards to Russian athletes. However, federations like UWW can ultimately make their own decisions. So, in terms of this year’s Worlds, it’s ultimately up to UWW if the Russians and Belarussians will be allowed to compete and if they represent their countries or as neutral wrestlers who don’t accumulate team points for their countries nor wear their country’s uniform.

This column appeared in the late June issue of WIN Magazine. Click on the cover or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe.

UWW has formed a committee to make a recommendation to them on how to handle the Russians re-entry into wrestling. The international governing body for the sport currently does not allow countries to enter more athletes in the World Championships than competed in the continental championships of a particular age division. Russia qualifies for the Worlds through the European Championships, which were in Croatia in mid-April on the Senior level. The Russians were not entered in that event so technically they have no pathway to competing in the 2023 Senior Worlds. 

USA Wrestling Executive Director Rich Bender said nothing is definite yet, but Team USA is preparing for the Russians to be in Belgrade, Serbia, in mid-September for this year’s World Championships. 

Bender said the Russians missed their “qualification window” by not competing in the Europeans. However, he also said he wouldn’t be surprised if UWW allows them in as neutral athletes, thinking that they’ll waive that requirement because of the uniqueness of the situation. 

“Short of them (UWW) breaking their own rules, there’s no pathway for them to back into the Worlds,” Bender said. “But we know anything is possible obviously.  We’re preparing as if they’re going to be there. But that could change at any time.” 

UWW has said the Russians could participate in the upcoming U17 World Championships in Turkey in six weeks. That may be a sign for how the UWW might handle the Senior Worlds. However, the difference between those two situations is that Russia entered a team at the U17 Europeans, which just concluded last week. They entered as neutral athletes and didn’t score any points. But it technically allowed them that number of wrestlers into the final World Championships for that age group because they at least showed up and weighed in. 

Russia and Belarus did not do that at the Senior level, even as neutral athletes.

Rich Bender

According to Bender, the IOC has put out three conditions regarding Russia’s participation in the Olympics:

1 – No Russian teams will be allowed at the Games in Paris. 

2 – No athletes who “publicly supported the war” previously, even through things like social media, will be allowed to participate. 

3 – No athletes supported financially by the Russian or Belarussian military will be allowed at the Olympics. 

Obviously, this is where things get even more complex. The IOC has hired a third-party Swiss company known for their investigations and watchdog abilities in sports gambling, among other things. The company will be investigating the Russian athletes, including past social-media posts to see if they publicly supported the war. If they did, it’s looking like they won’t be allowed into next summer’s Games. 

In addition, most of the high-level Russian clubs that their better Senior-level wrestlers compete for are supported financially by the Russian military to some extent. So, where does that leave those athletes who haven’t been supportive of the war in terms of their Olympic eligibility next year?

There’s even been some talk that the IOC might require athletes to publicly denounce the war, which appears to be getting too political. 

What do you think UWW and the IOC should do? Most people are greatly against the war. Fans know Russia loves its sports and is very competitive internationally. Might these tactics make a difference in the war? Maybe, maybe not. 

Here’s another way to approach it. Let’s say you are the No. 1 Senior-level wrestler on the Russian team. How would you react to all of this? Let’s say your son or daughter is the No. 1 wrestler on their team and next summer’s Olympics will be their once-in-a-lifetime shot at a medal at the Games. Then what?

In my opinion, UWW and the IOC are handling this in the right way. There are many issues, obviously, that are much bigger than sports. Putting restrictions on Russian participation sends a strong message that the invasion of Ukraine is not OK. And, since they didn’t go to the Europeans on the Senior level, I don’t think UWW should let them compete in Serbia even as neutrals as they’d be setting a dangerous precedence by not following their own rules. 

However, if they haven’t been publicly supporting the war and aren’t directly paid personally by the military, even if their club receives some assistance, I think they should be allowed in the Olympics next summer as neutrals. Don’t completely penalize the athletes for the decisions their country is making. Penalize the country by not allowing them to represent Russia or Belarus at the Games. 

Email me and let me know what you think should happen. 

(Bryan Van Kley has been the publisher for WIN for just under 25 years. Email him at Bryan@WIN-magazine.com.)