Meet Zhan Beleniuk Ukraine’s first Black lawmaker won the country’s first gold at the Tokyo Olympics

Piroschka Van De Wouw / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Greco-Roman wrestler Zhan Beleniuk won Ukraine’s first gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics on August 4. The 30-year-old Kyiv native, who became Ukraine’s first Black lawmaker in 2019 and was subsequently sanctioned by Russia, celebrated his win with a traditional folk dance. Beleniuk took home a silver medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016 and has won both European and world championships multiple times. However, in conversation with journalists after his win, the wrestler revealed that he almost didn’t compete in Tokyo after sustaining a shoulder injury three weeks before the start of the games.

Ukrainian wrestler Zhan Beleniuk, who also happens to be a sitting lawmaker, won gold in the Greco-Roman 87-kilogram wrestling event at the Tokyo Olympics on August 4. His victory marked Ukraine’s first gold medal at the Tokyo Games, as well as the country’s first gold in the sport since 1996.

For the athlete himself, a two-time world champion and three-time European champion, it was the second Olympic medal of his career and his first gold. Beleniuk won silver at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. 

Victory dance

Beleniuk celebrated his win by raising the Ukrainian flag and dancing a Hopak — a traditional folk dance — on the mat. This was also his victory dance at the European Games in Minsk and the European Championship in Bucharest in 2019.

“It has become a good tradition to celebrate [my] victories by performing the Ukrainian folk dance Hopak. I danced as a child, some of the skills are still there. My fans like that a colorful guy, such as myself, performs a folk dance,” Beleniuk told journalists after the event.

The athlete received congratulations from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the head of Ukraine’s National Olympic Committee Sergey Bubka, and Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko.

Beleniuk teared up when commenting on his win. “It’s been a really long and difficult journey. I started training at the age of nine. Now I’m 30. And finally it happened. […] It was really very difficult at times. I’m sorry for the tears, but this really feels good,” he said, thanking Ukrainians for their support.

After the medal ceremony, the wrestler told reporters that he dislocated his shoulder during training three weeks before the Olympics and wasn’t sure if he could compete in Tokyo. “They told me that I needed to have an operation [and] to recover for about six weeks. And only my coach said that we will train and show results,” Beleniuk said. According to the athlete, in the first days after his injury he “couldn’t lift a tray in the cafeteria with [his] own hands.”

Kyiv born and raised

Zhan Beleniuk was born in Kyiv in 1991. His mother is Ukrainian and his father was from Rwanda. The athlete says that his father returned to his homeland after civil war broke out there in the early 1990s — prior to the birth of his son. “There were tumultuous times in Rwanda. Since my father was bound to military service he had to go there. He was called up,” Beleniuk said. According to the wrestler, his father “died in a politically motivated car accident.” 

Beleniuk was raised by his mother and grandmother. His family was poor; he recalls trying to earn money on his own from the age of 13.

The athlete says that in his youth he faced insults, conflicts, and fistfights because of his skin color. “In this environment I’m an exotic guy. At the time I didn’t understand a lot of things, I fell into depression. But I have a very wise mother, she always found words of support. Now I know that such things have tempered me, taught me to control myself. I’ve developed immunity,” Beleniuk said in a 2014 interview.

Scouted and sanctioned by Russia

In 2019, Zhan Beleniuk became Ukraine’s first Black lawmaker. He was elected to the Ukrainian parliament as a member of President Zelensky’s Servant of the People party. He also joined the parliamentary committee on youth and sport.

However, in June 2021, he was listed among the country’s top-ten most truant deputies. According to the Civil Network OPORA, an independent political watchdog based in Kyiv, Beleniuk was only present at 7.1 percent of the 870 votes that took place in the Ukrainian parliament this month. In total, according to the activists’ calculations, the wrestler has only attended 59 percent of parliamentary sessions during his term in office.

In December 2020, the Russian government added Beleniuk, along with other Ukrainian lawmakers, to its list of individuals subject to personal sanctions.

In a 2016 interview with the sports news site Tribuna.com, Beleniuk said that he “wasn’t particularly patriotic before the events on the Maidan and in Crimea.” The athlete, who used to train in Crimea often, believes the peninsula belongs to Ukraine, although he admits that Russians may hold a different opinion. “Ukrainians look at the situation from their own position, and Russians [look at it] from their own position. I have this point of view and a prior it cannot be any different because I am Ukrainian,” he said in the interview.

“I have a lot of memories associated with Crimea, both sports-related and personal ones. I have always considered it [the peninsula] Ukrainian and I still do now. And when all this is taken away from you it hurts,” Beleniuk said.

According to the wrestler, he has received offers to relocate several times, including from Russia and Azerbaijan, but he turned them down. “Why didn’t I leave? I had no desire to. Though I understood, of course, that there would be completely different conditions there. But I don’t know — I stayed and that’s it,” he told journalists. 

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Story by Olga Morozova

Translation by Eilish Hart

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