Wrestlers barred from Olympics after immigrant row

Ukrainian-born Olga Butkevych representing Britain at an Olympic qualification event © Getty Images

Britain’s wrestlers have had their allocation of Olympic places cut from three to one after failing to meet performance targets. The bad news follows a bizarre feud over foreign fighters.

Back in 2004, British Wrestling – the body that manages the sport in the UK – found itself with £3.5 million and a problem. The money was extra funding from taxpayers, because London had been chosen to host the 2012 Olympic Games.

The problem was that Britain’s top wrestlers were far from ready to represent their country. Wrestling is a minority sport in the UK, rarely taught in schools. That means fewer expert instructors, and a shallower pool of talent to choose from.

So the leaders of the sport came up with a sensible-sounding solution. To help British athletes thrive, they would bring in some specialist trainers from countries where the sport is more widely played – countries like Bulgaria and Ukraine. These highly skilled foreign wrestlers, it was hoped, could teach Team GB a trick or two.

As it turned out, the foreign ‘trainers’ ended up doing much more than that. After long stays in the UK, several have applied for British citizenship. And some of the trainers even fell in love with British athletes, and are now married.

The consequence, however, is that the ‘imported’ wrestlers now qualify to compete for Britain in the Olympic Games – and they have the experience to make the team much stronger. British wrestlers had hoped to learn new skills. Instead, they found themselves out of the competition.

Some of those who lost out felt they had been unfairly treated. They accused British Wrestling of trying to buy success, by ‘importing’ champions from abroad. But the head of the organisation, Malcolm Morley, says his principles are simple. He wants the best British wrestlers to compete in the Olympics, and a British wrestler is anyone with a British passport – regardless of where they were born.

The resulting row has been creating bad feeling among Britain’s wrestlers for months now, and appears to have dented morale. Performances have not been up to scratch, which means the wrestlers have only been awarded a single Olympic place between them, in the women’s under 55kg category. The person most likely to win the spot is Olga Butkevych – who moved to Britain recently from Ukraine.

Foul play?

So was it wrong to let foreign-born athletes compete for Britain? Some commentators say it is a form of cheating; that the Olympics should be about nurturing home-grown talent – not bringing it in from abroad.

Others say that having foreign-born athletes competing for Britain is something to be proud of. The fact that these highly-skilled men and women were willing to adopt Britain as their home, and win medals for their new country, is a testament to the UK’s tolerant, open and diverse spirit – where talent can flourish no matter where it comes from.

You Decide

  1. Was it wrong of British Wrestling to allow the ‘imported’ wrestlers to represent Britain?
  2. Why do athletes compete as part of national teams? Does it make sense?

Activities

  1. Write a script for a dramatic scene in which a UK-born wrestler confronts an ‘imported’ rival.
  2. Wrestling is an underappreciated sport in the UK. Choose (or invent) one other sport you think does not get enough attention, and prepare a short presentation on it to give to your class, explaining why you think more people should play.

Some People Say...

“Athletes should be allowed to represent whatever country they like.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I never was much of a wrestling fan.
This debate over imported talent is relevant to more sports than just wrestling. The British Olympic team will have foreign-born athletes competing in all sorts of disciplines. Indeed, American-born Tiffany Porter led Britain’s athletes at the World Indoor Athletics Championships earlier this year. Altogether, around fifty of the 550 athletes representing Britain at the Olympics will have roots overseas.
That seems like a lot!
It’s just over nine per cent. But it is worth pointing out that as many as 12% of all people in Britain are foreign-born. So the Olympic team will look just like the country it represents. The foreign-born athletes will be just as proud to fly the flag for Britain as anyone else.

Word Watch

Wrestling
Wrestling is one of the oldest sports in the world, mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem which dates back to 1700 BC. It is one of the few modern Olympic sports to have also featured in the first Olympics, in Ancient Greece.
Team GB
For athletics events, athletes from all over Britain compete on the same team. This is different in other popular sports like football or rugby, where England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland compete separately.
Ukraine
Wrestling is very popular in many countries that were part of the old USSR or that have a strong Russian influence. But the sport used to be much more popular in Britain too. It is said that King Henry VIII of Britain was once beaten by the King of France in a wrestling match.

Subjects

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