Champion wrestler steps off the mat, into Ukrainian politics

Zhan Beleniuk, Ukraine, silver medal, Rio Olympics, wrestling
Ukraine’s Zhan Beleniuk poses with his silver medal at a victory ceremony for the men’s -85kg Greco-Roman wrestling event at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Beleniuk was recently elected to parliament in Ukraine. (Photo by Stanislav KrasilnikovTASS via Getty Images)

For being 28 years old, Zhan Beleniuk has accomplished a lot in life. As a wrestler, he medaled at the European and World championships. He won an Olympic silver medal. But after elections held July 21, he became the first person of mixed race to hold a seat in Ukraine’s parliament.

Black text that reads why this matters
Athletes can have an impact beyond the world of sports. A wrestler became the first mixed-race member of parliament in Ukraine, running specifically to help end racial stereotypes.

Beleniuk was born in Kiev, Ukraine, to a Ukrainian mother and Rwandan father. He started wrestling at a young age and became a professional wrestler in 2010. He competes in Greco-Roman style wrestling in the 85 kilogram weight class.

The young wrestler made his run for parliament as a way to battle racial stereotypes prevalent in Ukraine. 

Describing himself as 100-percent Ukrainian, 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.”

Incidents of blatant racism against not only those of African descent, but also those of other minority groups have taken place in recent years.

Beleniuk is part of the Servant of the People party — the same party as the recently elected Ukrainian president, comedian and actor Volodymyr Zelensky. The party possesses a strong anti-corruption platform and many young members, who run for parliament seats.

This is not Beleniuk’s first foray into politics. Prior to the 2016 Olympics, he was outspoken against Ukraine’s sports authorities, calling for more financing and better training conditions for Ukrainian athletes competing on the world stage.

While serving in parliament, Beleniuk hopes to also qualify for and compete in the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Sarah Farrell is a graduate student studying sports journalism at Arizona State University

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