Feature

From wrestling world champ to politician: Zhan Beleniuk fights for equality in Ukraine

The reigning Greco-Roman world champion reveals how racism fuelled his wrestling career, why he became a member of parliament, and how he balances politics with training for Olympic gold in Tokyo.

By Andrew Binner ·

While Ukrainian sports stars transitioning into politics is nothing new, reigning Greco-Roman wrestling world champion Zhan Beleniuk is certainly blazing a new trail in his homeland.

In July 2019, the 87kg grappler became the first person of mixed race to be elected to Ukraine's parliament.

But unlike current Mayor of Kiev Vitali Klitschko, the elder brother of Atlanta 1996 boxing gold medallist Wladimir Klitschko who entered politics in 2006 after retiring from the ring, Beleniuk has continued his sporting career.

After winning silver at the Rio 2016 Olympics, he plans to go one better at the Tokyo Games in 2021 before stepping away from the mat for good.

“With a high degree of probability, I will finish my career after the Olympics," the 29-year-old told the Ukraine Wrestling Association website.

“But I am such a person that I never guess 100 percent. It is because I saw so many different examples when people said they are leaving but then they don’t, especially athletes."

Zhan Beleniuk encountered racism as a child

Beleniuk was born in 1991 - the year Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union - to a Rwandan pilot father and Ukrainian dressmaker mother.

His father died fighting in Rwanda’s civil war, leaving the future wrestling star to be raised by his Ukrainian family in a one-room flat in Kyiv (Kiev).

Beleniuk suffered racist abuse that sometimes even turned physical in the nation's capital, which was a far more homogeneous city than it is today.

Asked about racism in Ukraine, he told Tribuna.com it did not bother him too much, but added that he felt "too light for Africa, too dark for Ukraine" with his mixed heritage.

Even within his own family, the Kiev native found members who previously harboured discriminatory attitudes.

"People always fear things that are new and unknown," he told Newsweek.

"When my grandmother moved to Kiev she feared taking the tram with a black person, but the world is changing. I hope I can serve as a good example."

Beleniuk took up Greco-Roman wrestling when he was nine and, fuelled by his early experiences of racism, decided to use success in sport as a way of tackling prejudice.

In 2010 he turned professional, winning his first international medal with bronze at the 2012 European Championships in Belgrade, Serbia.

That success spring boarded him to wrestling’s top table.

Over the next seven years he pinned down three European Championships, a gold and silver medal in the European Games, and two golds, a silver and a bronze at the World Championships.

As his success grew on the mat, so too did his displays of patriotism. He was increasingly photographed wearing traditional Ukrainian shirts, and even started celebrating some of his victories with a traditional Ukrainian dance, the Hopak.

In 2017, Beleniuk joined the Ukrainian Army as a junior lieutenant, and a year later was awarded an apartment in Kiev by Ukrainian authorities in recognition of his sporting achievements.

Zhan Beleniuk poses with Ukrainian pole vault great Sergey Bubka after winning silver at the 2015 European Games in Baku

Speaking out against the authorities

Despite Beleniuk’s acceptance into Ukrainian society and obvious pride in his homeland, the softly-spoken grappler became vocal in his displeasure at the national wrestling team’s training facilities.

He was adamant that more could be done to help Ukraine be even more competitive, which would in turn bring pleasure to its citizens at a time when they need it most.

“Wrestlers do not need much equipment for training — only a mat, a thing our government can provide. But we have only one training base where more than eight athletes can train all at once,” Beleniuk told the Kyiv Post.

“I wish the government started the construction of new arenas for us, because we have enormous potential in Ukraine.

“The successful performance of athletes can brighten up harsh everyday realities."

The public outcry didn’t go unnoticed by foreign wrestling superpowers, who attempted to lure the talented Beleniuk into their programmes.

But they were ultimately wasting their time on a man with eyes only for the yellow and blue singlet of Ukraine.

“I’ve had offers from China, Azerbaijan, and many other countries, where the government finances wrestling much better,” Beleniuk revealed.

“I didn’t stay because I am such a patriot. I just belong here. The other team would never fully accept me.”

“I consider myself 100% Ukrainian, and the people who have always supported and believed in me are all in Ukraine. I don’t want to betray them. Sooner or later, there will be positive changes."

Zhan Beleniuk celebrates after winning the -87kg title at the 2019 European Games in Minsk

Building a greater voice for change through politics

When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reached out to Beleniuk about potentially joining his party, the two-time wrestling world champion immediately accepted.

This opportunity would provide him with an even greater voice in the country and a direct platform from which to help end racial prejudice, while also improving sporting infrastructure.

"Volodymyr Zelensky invited me to join his party, we knew each other before," Beleniuk told AFP.

"It seems like he saw qualities in me that will help promote the development of Ukrainian sport."

The wrestler was under no illusion that politics "won’t be as comfortable as training", but admitted that he was relishing the "challenge" with the same vigour as a wrestling bout.

“I got a chance... to influence the situation and it would be cowardly for me to say I’m not ready to do this.”

Beleniuk told Peace and Sport his election would demonstrate, “We’re really a country that’s modern and that treats all races, all ethnic groups the same.”

An 'unfulfilled goal’ of winning Olympic gold

With every other honour in wrestling under his belt, Beleniuk admitted that his ‘remaining unfulfilled goal’ is to clinch gold at Tokyo 2020.

In order to give himself the best chance of improving on his Rio 2016 silver, he has even proposed to take temporary unpaid leave from his political office in order to fully focus on competing in Japan.

Given he will be 30 at the next Games, switching to a new sport afterwards would not be out of the question with the lucrative world of professional mixed martial arts a possibility.

"Everyone is waiting for me there. I promised that I would try to prove myself in this sport,” Beleniuk told Tribuna regarding rumours of his switch to MMA.

“Many wrestlers transition to MMA, but there are questions on how effective and appropriate it is. At this moment, I am far away from the Octagon. Wrestling and MMA are different kinds of sports, you do not want the first Octagon appearance to ruin all the impressions of your previous career.

“If I see the potential and realise that something can really work out for me, why not? It seems that there have not yet been MPs who became world champions in MMA.”

Concentrating on politics, or possibly becoming an MMA fighter, Beleniuk's talents seemingly know no limits. Whichever path he chooses, his success, coupled with his mission to eliminate prejudice from society, mean he is also now a role model for all Ukrainians.