What would you trade to be at the Olympics? Nurislam Sanayev has given up his identity: his name, country and religion. The 23-year-old wrestler was born as Arthas Sanaa in Tyva, Russia’s wrestling hub, to a family of wrestlers. However, for Sanna, the sport’s popularity proved to be a curse. Wrestlers in Russia are as commonplace as footballers in Brazil or distance-runners in Africa. They are in abundance and, considering the intense level of competition, not many make it to the top.
In this crowded space, Sanaa, for years, tried to carve his own identity and make a name for himself in the Russian national team. But he never came close to making the cut. So, in 2014 – after competing for Russia in a few lightweight international tournaments – he changed his nationality and decided to compete for Kazakhstan. Then, just before the Rio Olympics where he competed in the 57kg class, Arthas Sanaa changed his name to Nurislam Sanayev and converted to Islam.
He isn’t the only wrestler to have moved out of Russia in search of greener pastures. Two years ago, Ilyas Bekbulatov won a European Championship silver medal for Russia, and the year before, he had won the gold. Yet, Bekbulatov is considered to be one of the best wrestlers to have never competed in a World Championship or an Olympics as he never got selected for Russia. So, with an eye on the Tokyo Games, the 29-year-old 70kg wrestler switched his nationality effective last month. And on Sunday, the former European Champion will make his Asian Championship debut, representing Uzbekistan.
Sanayev and Bekbulatov are among the 11 one-time Russians who are competing at the Asian Championships this week in New Delhi – four representing Kyrgyzstan, three in Uzbekistan’s team, two with Kazakhstan and one each with Bahrain and the Philippines.
“In Russia, the level of competition is very high and all of them dream to go for the Olympics,” says Dulat Karybaev, a Kazakh wrestling official who also works for United World Wrestling-Asia. “Since they do not get a chance, they go to another country.”
The international body, United World Wrestling, does not frown upon such ‘transfers.’ In its rulebook, the UWW considers “professional, sports, family or political” issues as reasons for athletes to change nationality, and in fact, they even have provisions for wrestlers to adopt a ‘sports nationality’ without holding the nationality certified by a passport. They have a ‘transfer window’ too. The wrestler has to submit all the necessary paperwork and a fee of 5,000 Swiss francs between December 1 and 31. And if everything is in order, the wrestler will get his new ‘sports nationality’ at the start of the New Year. However, nationality can be changed just once and is definitive, meaning the wrestler cannot return to his previous country.
Karybaev says there are a lot of wrestlers who have been taking advantage of this rule. Because of their shared past and culture, a lot of Russians end up choosing one of the former Soviet nations as their new home. Financial considerations, too, are made before making the switch.
Sanayev, for instance, is assured a salary of $1,000 per month by the Kazakhstan federation, according to Karybaev; which is almost five times what he made while in Russia. “If he wins World Championship, he will get $15,000 and for Asian Championship gold, $3000. Apart from that, he gets house, car and other things too,” Karybaev says.
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The influx of wrestlers from Russia upset the local hopefuls in Kazakhstan, which forced the federation to alter its policy after the Rio Olympics and keep a check on the number of wrestlers they import from there. The Russians, however, had found alternates by then.
In the last few years, richer wrestling federations outside of the erstwhile Soviet bloc have begun to poach the Russians. “You will find Russian wrestlers in France, Hungary, Spain and even Turkey. There are so many of them everywhere,” Karybaev says.
In Asia, the Gulf nations have joined the race to woo the Russians. In the 65kg class, for instance, India’s medal hope at Tokyo Bajrang Punia could face Haji Mohamad Ali, a little-known Russian who has made Bahrain his new home, in the semifinals on Sunday.
A tougher test, from an Indian perspective, will be in 57kg on Saturday, where world championship bronze medalist Ravi Kumar is likely to meet Sanayev if he reaches the last four. At the Rome Ranking Series last month, Ravi defeated his Russian-Kazakh opponent without much of a fuss. Karybaev says Sanayev is better prepared this time. “Unfortunately (for India), he will be stronger,” he jokes. “But then, his target is just the Olympics. He is preparing just for that.”
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