Wrestling's Trouble With Dictators

© Richard Mackson-USA Today Burroughs 2012 Medal Stand

"Stick to sports and leave the politics out of it" is a popular refrain uttered by sports fans of all stripes. Few would argue with the virtues of keeping the two subject matters as separated as possible. But problems arise when politics impose themselves onto sports, often leaving athletes and fans with no other option but to weather the political storms and hope for the best.

Wrestling is unfortunately no exception. The 1980 and 1984 Olympics were infamously boycotted by alternating factions of the Cold War. The USA men's freestyle team missed the 2002 World Championships held in Iran due to safety concerns during the tumultuous post-9/11 political climate.

To this day, the hoary cliche of politicians placating their restless citizens with "bread and circus" continues to hold true, with reports of corrupted bidding processes for FIFA's World Cup and the Olympic Games representing the proverbial modern-day circuses.

Despite having nearly all major events involve national identities, the international wrestling community has done an admirable job remaining above the fray as of late. When the sport was unceremoniously dropped from the Olympic program of events in 2013, the heads of Russian, Iranian, and American wrestling came together in a stirring show of solidarity to save the sport's Olympic future.

However, two team events, one recently concluded and the other to take place in December, have raised concerns about whether politics have once again interjected themselves and spoiled the party. 

The Kadyrov Cup, which concluded a week ago in Grozny, Russia, was named in honor of Akhmat Kadyrov, the first president of the Chechen Republic, a constituent subdivision of the Russian Federation. There was no Kadyrov Cup in 2016, but from from 2011 to 2015 there were five annual Ramzan Kadyrov Cups, individual tournaments also held in Grozny but named after the current president of Chechnya, Akhmat's son Ramzan. 

Despite their superficial differences, both the Ramazan Kadyrov Cup and the Akhmat Kadyrov Cup have the same fundamental purpose, to celebrate and promote Ramzan Kadyrov. The event is a paean to a man widely regarded as an amoral warlord. Though the history of Chechnya is far too complex to properly summarize, Kadyrov currently embodies one of its darkest chapters. 

Ramzan Kadyrov is believed to be behind numerous assassinations, both locally and abroad. He is alleged to have been responsible for the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and Russian political opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. The Free Russia Foundation, a political non-governmental organization (NGO), has called Kadyrov "not only Russia's internal threat -- he has definitely become a global danger."

Kadyrov is currently presiding over an alleged state sponsored campaign of violence, terror, and murder against the gay and lesbian population of Chechnya. Kadyrov's response to the accusations in an interview with HBO's "Real Sports" can be found in the video below and truly must be seen to be believed. 

In contrast to a wrestling tournament created to pay tribute to a murderous despot, the World Clubs Cup has been held annually since 2014 in both freestyle and Greco-Roman, featuring sponsored clubs from around the world in a dual meet format. The Titan Mercury Wrestling Club has entered the freestyle tournament each of the last three tournaments, finishing second in 2014 and 2015 and winning it all in 2016.

The impending edition of the Clubs Cup has caused a minor kerfuffle because it's been reported that Jordan Burroughs is close to signing a deal to wrestle for an Iranian club, Bimeh Razi. Some commenters have voiced concerns about an American wrestling for an Iranian club when the event is also taking place in Iran. The United States and Iran have been hostile toward each other for decades, and I don't mean to gloss over any of Iran's troubling human rights record and involvement in state-sponsored terrorism. However, the World Clubs Cup is decidedly apolitical. It is precisely the type of positive, cultural bridge-building common ground in which two political enemies should be engaged. 

It is not unlike the annual Beat the Streets benefit events, which bring overseas athletes, often from Russia and Iran, to America to compete and raise funds for urban outreach programs. 

Furthermore, though the Clubs Cup teams are often predominantly from one country or another, none of the teams are officially affiliated with UWW's national federations. Indeed, Titan Mercury had two Iranians on its team in 2015. Bimeh Razi has also had other non-Iranians on its team. Bimeh Razi's sponsor is also about as nonpartisan as you can get. The name translates to "Insurance Satisfaction," because it is, in fact, a very unassuming and staid Iranian insurance company

Burroughs' inclusion on the Bimeh Razi team roster at the World Clubs Cup would be in no way an endorsement of any policy enacted or deed committed by the Iranian national government. 

Which is also not to say that any wrestler participating in the Kadyrov Cup is necessarily endorsing Kadyrov. Although some competitors may be willing to promote Kadyrov, others may enter the tournament entirely ignorant of the situation. Additionally, whatever the individual competitors may think of Kadyrov, they most likely don't have the luxury of judging their environment from the safe and comfortable remove afforded by living in a developed western country. Some might even eventually follow the example of chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov, who represented the Soviet Union in competitions despite holding many of their corrupt and unethical policies in contempt and then later retired and became a civil rights activist and humanitarian. 

The line is not always clear for an athlete between what is an unacceptable intrusion of politics into sports and merely a fact of life to be tolerated if not condoned. So many of the world's greatest wrestlers are, through no fault of their own, born into countries that have horrendous ratings when it comes to corruption and human rights. Knowing when and where to pick your battles is never as obvious as it is in hindsight. 

What should be clear, from an American perspective in any case, is that anything we can do to distance ourselves from Ramzan Kadyrov should be done, and any endeavor that can help bring otherwise unfriendly nations together through the cultural bonds of sport and competition should be undertaken. 

It may get messy and everyone won't always agree, but it's worth taking the time to think critically and evaluate each situation to get the maximum benefit of the world's oldest and greatest sport while doing as little harm globally as possible. 

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