Chechen roots of France’s wrestling team

France only fielded Chechens with French citizenship to the 2023 European U23 Wrestling Championships. How did it happen and why are some in Russia not happy about it?

Chechen roots of France’s wrestling team
Khamzat Arsamerzouev. Photo: Domenico Cippitelli/LiveMedia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The 2023 European U23 Wrestling Championships ended on 19 March in Bucharest. The Russian national team did not compete for obvious reasons, but what did draw a lot of attention to the tournament was the French squad composed of six ethnic Chechens. There was no one else, these six wrestlers were the entire team. Their line-up group photo went viral and caused a stir online.

For instance, Mikhail Mamiashvili, president of the Russian Wrestling Federation, came up with a very creative idea for how that happened. “These people made themselves there and none of them ever competed for the Russian national team. It’s because the French go to gay [pride] parades, and the Chechens will do the man’s work for them,” he told Russian TV.

It’s a bit strange to hear this from the president of the Russian Wrestling Federation, to put it mildly. It’s possible that Mikhail Mamiashvili is just miffed by the International Olympic Committee for banning Russian athletes from competing following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Or he just decided to play down the Chechens’ sports merits by painting a picture of them as “real men” exclusively at the backdrop of the “French gays”.

But there’s a pinch of truth in his words: none of the six French team members ever represented Russia or had to switch their sport nationality. All of the Chechens were either born in the country or moved there at a young age. The following wrestlers competed under the French flag in Bucharest in the freestyle event: Adam Biboulatov (61 kg), Khamzat Arsamerzouev (65 kg), Mohamed-Amine Sangariev (70 kg), Magamed Deliev (74 kg), Rakhim Magamadov (86 kg), and Adlan Viskhanov (92 kg).

The French team at the 2023 European U23 Wrestling Championships

The French team at the 2023 European U23 Wrestling Championships

Khamzat Arsamerzouev is the most decorated wrestler among them: he already has a silver medal in the 2022 edition of the tournament. He placed third at the U23 World Championships and seventh in the World Championships. Rakhim Magamadov, 20, is a 2022 U20 World and European champion, while Adlan Viskhanov won a bronze medal at the 2022 U20 European Championships.

So, how did six ethnic Chechens fill all the spots in the French national team?

Around 30,000 Chechens currently live in France. Almost all of them emigrated during the First and Second Chechen Wars but some moved to France later. In particular, Adlan Viskhanov’s family left Chechnya on 31 December 2008. He cited his mother’s illness and a “tense situation in Russia” as the reason for leaving in an interview with Nice-Matin. Meanwhile, Rakhim Magamadov told La Depeche that he did not have any recollection of his life in the Caucasus, where Chechnya is located. He was born in the Chechen town of Gudermes but his family was forced to leave the region when he was just four years old over the so-called “counterterrorism operation” and move to France.

A whole generation of youngsters grew up in emigration as a group of people who are fully integrated into European society and make careers for themselves in various professions. However, sports remain the main passion of the Chechen youth.

French wrestling has deep-rooted traditions and an excellent track record. However, the ethnic French prefer judo over all other types. The French Judo Federation has more than 500,000 registered members and almost 6,000 clubs. This is more than in Japan where the martial art originated. At the same time, freestyle wrestling is very popular among Chechens, both at home and away.

Sports media and experts started emphasising the increasing number of Chechen freestyle wrestlers in the French national team several years ago.

Journalists were noting that half the French squad was ethnically Chechen already in 2019.

Mayrbek Vachagaev, Chechen historian, writer, and journalist, was the first to break the story of the Chechen roots in the French team in Russian.

“I saw this story on a French website and just posted it in Russian. This is amateur sports and this piece of news was just another reminder that the guys are doing well, doing something good,” Vachagaev told Novaya-Europe. “In a few days’ time, I noticed that mean and negative comments were posted under the news. This information then spread to social and mass media, including global ones. Sure thing, the names and surnames of those who wrote these comments tell us nothing. But this is an indication of how Chechens and the Chechen people are treated in Russia.”

Vachagaev notes that these Chechen wrestlers “do the sport as amateurs: since they study at the same time, and they have other hobbies and jobs apart from the sport, they go to the gym only after that”. This possibly makes Russian “patriots” even more bitter.

“Many Russians are irritated that the Chechen diaspora in Europe forms a totally different image to the one that has been artificially crafted in Russia for decades and centuries, if you will. A whole generation grew up in emigration: we have famous doctors in Belgium, lecturers in UK universities, lawyers in Europe’s largest banks, athletes, actors, artists, sculptors, which does not fit the stereotypical Russian view of Chechens. Because if anyone speaks about us in Russia, it always has a reference to violence, aggression, war, and ‘this is the most they can do’ pretext,” Vachagaev says. “Have you ever read any positive stories about Chechens [in Russia]? Chechen athletes competing under the Russian flag are seen as Russians or Chechens depending on competition results. We see this every year: Chechens if they lose, Russians if they win.”

“The European countries where Chechens moved to after all these tragic events gave opportunities to our youth to realise themselves, and we can see these results today. And it is not easy to arrive in a new country after terrible wars and traumas, learn the language, a new profession, and find your feet.”

The Bucharest wrestling championship results for France are as follows: Khamzat Arsamerzouev and Rakhim Magamadov became European champions, while Adlan Viskhanov won bronze. Therefore, the Chechens earned three medals for France.

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