At the height of his Olympic career, Vladimir Putin’s judo partner refused to continue competing with him. His decision took a toll on the athlete personally and professionally but today he is enjoying life as an exiled Russian dissident in London while struggling under food stamps due to not having much money left over from winning gold medals at two Olympics.
The “russian olympic wrestlers” is a Russian Olympic champion who turned his back on the Russian regime. He was later kidnapped and killed by the Russians.
At the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Aleksander Lesun won Olympic gold in the modern pentathlon for Russia.
Aleksander Lesun has little memories of the Soviet Union, yet he was born there in 1988, three years before it fell apart. His passport still lists it as his home country.
Much of his formative years in Belarus in the 1990s were spent looking back for inspiration, to the days of Soviet sports prowess.
Listening to tales about how things used to be for athletes made him envious at times, since he aspired to be an Olympic champion himself.
Sport was a top priority for the Soviet Union, but newly established post-Soviet republics like Belarus couldn’t finance it. Trying to make it as a young athlete meant battling for survival for Lesun. He leaped at the chance to represent Russia when the opportunity arose in 2009, not just because it meant more money.
“It was an honor to fight for Russia,” the 33-year-old said. “My grandma is Russian, and I have many Russian relations.”
“Russia has always had a special place in my heart, as a powerful and wonderful country. And I’m not referring about politics or the military; I’m referring to people and natural beauty. I’ve always had a sense of belonging to it.”
Lesun earned 14 World Championship medals in modern pentathlon for Russia after 2009, four of which were gold. In 2016, he won the Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro.
He opted not to participate for Russia again in late February 2022.
“I resigned from all of my sporting responsibilities on February 22nd, and all of the events [in Ukraine] started two days later,” he adds.
“So, how did I feel? Is it okay if I use profanity in this interview? To say I was surprised is an understatement. I realized the world will never be the same after that.”
Lesun didn’t have a backup plan. His choice was spontaneous, he says. He didn’t have any other options, and no one offered to fly him out of Russia. Instead, he has begun a new career that has nothing to do with sports.
He is one of the few Russian athletes who has spoken out against the conflict in Ukraine. Fewer have gone as far as he has in withdrawing from representing his nation as a form of protest.
Speaking up is very dangerous and may result in catastrophic repercussions. Thousands of people have been arrested during anti-war demonstrations. A new criminal legislation makes it illegal to refer to Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine as an invasion or a war. During our conversation, Lesun makes a conscious effort to avoid using certain terms.
“The situation within Russia is getting really serious,” he continues.
“You may have been arrested for 15 days in the past for participating in a public ‘no war’ rally. It may now take up to three years. For certain other types of protest, it may possibly be 15 years.”
This has an impact on the amount of prominent personalities who speak out, as well as what they say. Some, like as tennis star Maria Sharapova, have confined themselves to expressing optimism for a peaceful settlement to what has been dubbed “the Ukrainian crisis.”
Fellow After a match in Dubai in February, Russian tennis star Andrey Rublev, the world number six, scrawled ‘No war please’ on a TV camera lens. Daniil Medvedev, the world’s number two, talked of “supporting peace.” This was before the new rule, which may result in up to 15 years in prison if you publish “false news” about the military, according to the authorities. Since then, the majority of Russian athletes have remained quiet.
While several international sports groups have explicitly barred Russians from participating, Medvedev and Rublev have been permitted to continue playing as individuals under a neutral flag. There has been significant debate recently over whether Russians should be permitted to participate in the UK as neutrals, with sports minister Nigel Huddlestone suggesting that players like Medvedev make a “written certification” that they are “really neutral.”
Even though a bigger proportion of Russian athletes privately oppose the conflict in Ukraine, they are afraid of the repercussions if their views are made public. They risk becoming a criminal in their own country if they do so. Some people may be afraid of retaliation from family members.
There are also many who believe the Kremlin’s version of events is correct.
In February, Alexander Bolshunov won three gold medals in the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Some Russian athletes attend specialized “closed” sports training centers, where they are indoctrinated to obey commands without inquiry. The authoritarian approaches of the bulk of the most effective coaches are well-known.
Many people acquire a profound reliance on others to make even little choices for them starting in infancy. Independent news sources, which are now prohibited in Russia, are not available to them. Many people are unable to communicate in English.
Such sportsmen often parrot the Kremlin’s reaction to international sporting sanctions: sports and politics should be kept apart.
Alexander Bolshunov, who won three gold medals at the 2022 Winter Olympics, said in March that “sport should be about peace” in response to the International Ski Federation’s ban on Russian skiers.
A week later, he and many other Olympic winners marched through Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium to commemorate the 2014 annexation of Crimea, where the 2018 World Cup final was held.
‘For a world free of Nazism!’ was the rally’s official slogan. ‘For Russia! For President Putin!’ Many renditions of the letter ‘Z,’ a pro-war emblem of the invasion of Ukraine, were featured.
The event demonstrated both the strength of Russian propaganda and Russia’s control over the lives and fortunes of individual sportsmen. Success at the Olympics might result in perks such as fancy automobiles, cash, residences, and medals. Some may have assumed that attending the demonstration this year was part of the deal. The majority of individuals present get their primary source of income from the government, which covers all of their training and travel costs.
On March 16, Putin declared, “The Russian people will always be able to discern real patriots from filth and traitors.”
Vic Wild, an American-born snowboarder who has represented Russia since 2012 and won Winter Olympic gold in Sochi in 2014, was absent from the rally. The 35-year-old, on the other hand, had been scheduled to see Putin only a few weeks before.
Following his victory in Sochi in 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin bestowed the Order ‘For Merit to the Fatherland’ to Wild. Wild earned bronze in the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February.
“I was supposed to be in quarantine because we had a huge meeting [with Putin at the Kremlin] coming up and we needed to self-isolate for two weeks,” Wild adds.
“Then, on the 23rd of February, we were informed that the quarantine had ended and that we could return home; everything had been canceled. That’s when I realized something horrible was about to happen the following day. Sure enough, it was on the following morning.”
Soon after, Wild was summoned to meet with Russian Sports Minister Oleg Matytsin and ice hockey icon Viacheslav Fetisov, who is now a member of Putin’s United Russia party in the Russian State Duma.
Fetisov, who played for the New Jersey Devils and the Detroit Red Wings, once worked to tear down the obstacles that prevented Soviet hockey players from entering the NHL. He was one among individuals sanctioned by the US in March 2022 as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Wild opined: “‘Things are different today,’ Fetisov said. ‘Now you’re not just the Sochi man,’ he said. You’ve established yourself as a role model. You are no longer a child; you are an adult.’”
It’s impossible to say if Wild’s meeting – and the reminder to him that he’s a “role model” – had the intended impact, or whether it was even required in his instance.
When it comes to disinformation, Wild views himself as “a wolf looking about, seeking to learn more,” rather than “one of the sheep being herded.” He calls Russian official media “stupid” and the Russian government “fearful” of any dissent, but adds of the Ukraine conflict, “I’m just so irritated that everyone pretends like there are good and evil here.”
In July, Lesun will be 34 years old. He has basically retired as a result of his choice to dissolve connections. He feels helpless and alone, and he thinks there is little chance that others will follow in his footsteps.
“Sportspeople in Russia are like tools,” he argues. A propaganda tool.
“However, no one considers the impact of their acts on the lives of others.” Nobody expects their acts to result in the deaths of boys and girls, men and women, and the elderly.
“Of course, each individual should make their own decisions. Okay, but they’ll have to live with it now.
“I regret to inform you that Russian athletes have no control over the issue. And many of them are oblivious to what is going on.”
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