British wrestlers frustrated over the recruitment of foreign athletes

By Nick HopeBBC Olympic Sports Reporter
British wrestlers frustrated over the recruitment of foreign athletes

It may be one of the oldest sports known to civilization but American soap-style WWE aside, freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling has never reached wide appeal in Great Britain.

GB last achieved an Olympic medal in 1984 at the Los Angeles Games, where Noel Lobanexternal-link battled to bronze, but like many of the lower-profile Olympic sports in Britain, wrestling hopes that 2012 will help capture a greater interest and participation.

"If we can achieve success in London, the sport will move from strength to strength because it will mean we have the structures, resources and the personnel, to achieve more as we move towards 2016," stated British wrestling performance director Shaun Morleyexternal-link.

Are foreigners the way forward?

The process began in 2005 when UK Sportexternal-link announced they were investing nearly £2.5m into wrestling in the lead up to the Beijing Games.

"For an athlete when you're involved with a sport and a load of money comes into it, it's really exciting," commented British wrestler Mark Cocker.

British Wrestlingexternal-link were bold, they decided to take advice and assistance from eastern-European nations such as Ukraine and Bulgaria, where the sport enjoys much greater interest and traditionally, international success.

Ukranian Nicolai Kornyeyev had been working as team coach since the 2002 Commonwealth Games and he was joined by a series of foreign wrestlers including two former European Junior Champions, Yana Stadnikexternal-link and Olga Buktevychexternal-link, in 2007.

Their brief having arrived on work visas, was to assist with training and act as sparring partners to the British team at the National Wrestling Academy, in Salford, Manchester.

"Our athletes, although they had the basic potential really needed the world class training partners to allow them to develop to the standard so they could achieve at a world level," said Morley.

It was a policy many of the Brits were initially in favour of too. However, controversy arose when the likes of Stadnik, Buktevych and Bulgarian Krasimir Krastanovexternal-link remained in the country and began competing for Great Britain.

"The roles have reversed, the British wrestlers are now effectively the training partners for the imports," said British wrestler Mark Cocker.

"I had assurances from British Wrestling that the athletes were not being brought in to take the place of British athletes and that's exactly what's happened," alleges Cocker.

"When I started with the team there were around 20 British home-grown athletes and just a few foreign-training partners, but British lads became disillusioned and started leaving," former British wrestler Craig Pilling told BBC Sport.

How can they compete for Britain without passports?

International competitions such as the World Championships, allow countries to enter two athletes who do not hold passports for that nation and in 2009 both Stadnik and Krastanov achieved impressive 5th place finishes in Denmark.

Stadnik went on to win Britain's first major international medal in 20 years when she secured silver at the 2010 European Championships in Azerbaijan, as such she is widely regarded as GB's best prospect of success at the 2012 Olympics.

Having lived in the UK for over four years the 24-year-old from Ukraine is going through the process of naturalisationexternal-link and hopes to have British citizenship confirmed in the coming months.

"I love Manchester and the whole of the UK because it's very beautiful and it feels like home," said Stadnik.

The GB Cup champion also says she sympathises with those who have objected to her presence in the team, but that she hopes to create a legacy for British women in the sport.

"I actually understand British people, if I was in Ukraine and people came to my country and took my place I would say hold on, go away, but I think in this country you have a little problem with the girls and I think I help," said Stadnik.

Her brother Andriy Stadnik won a silver medal for Ukraine at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, whilst in London Yana could come face-to-face with her sister-in-law Mariya Stadnik of Azerbaijan, as they both compete in the -48kg category.

"When I think about it [2012] I can't sleep, for me it would be amazing."

"When I wrestle for Great Britain I feel no difference to when I competed for Ukraine, because I put all of my heart into it.

"I wish to win some great medals for Great Britain," said Stadnik.

What's happening in other sports?

The foreign influence on British teams is considerable.

Fabio Capello's position as England's football manager is well-documented, as is the role of foreign-born England cricketers such as Kevin Pietersen.

In an Olympic context there are plenty of examples as well; GB rowing have been inspired by their German coach Jurgen Grobblerexternal-link, who has lead the team to gold medals in each of the last five Olympic Games.

Other examples include UK Athleticsexternal-link who have received a much-needed revamp through Dutchman Charles Van Commenee and British Swimmingexternal-link who continue to excel under the guidance of American Denis Pursley.

Lower-profile sports too have benefited; English Table Tennisexternal-link have a Chinese head coach whilst Taekwondoexternal-link brought in expertise from the motherland of their sport, Korea.

Athletes too have links abroad.

GB's double European middle-distance champion Mo Farah was born in Somalia before fleeing civil war and taking up residency in the UK as a child.

High jumper Germaine Mason won World Indoor bronze for Jamaica before switching to Great Britain and earning a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics; whilst Michael Bingham and Shawna Cox are two United States-born athletes hoping to make the GB team in 2012.

World Open Water Champion Keri-Anne Payne also originates from South Africa and although attaining a British passport through her English parents, the swimmer only arrived on UK shores at the age of 13.

Internationally one of the highest-profile controversies in recent times concerned Qatar. In 2003 Kenyan middle-distance runner Stephen Cherono was allegedly paid to switch nationality.

Under the name of Saif Saeed Shaheen he went on to win Qatar's first World Championship gold medal in Paris that year, ending 20-years of Kenyan domination of the 3,000m steeplechase.

What about wrestling?

Athletes switching allegiance is nothing new here either, Australia's coach Sam Parker confirmed as much to me at the GB Cup in Sheffield last year.

"We've been doing it for years, we've had a lot of migrants wrestle for Australia.

British Wrestling'sexternal-link performance director Shaun Morley insist that recruiting foreign athletes for competitive purposes has "never been the plan in any way, shape or form" and says their policy does not deprive British-born wrestlers the opportunity of representing their country.

"At the end of the day they [Stadnik et al] have been here for a substantial period of time, made substantial improvements to the programme and put us in a place that we wouldn't otherwise have been in.

"Realistically they will have gone through all of the necessary hurdles in terms of gaining their citizenship and quite rightly will have earned their chance to represent Great Britain in 2012," Morley told BBC Sport.

The sport received an initial 68% funding reduction in the lead up to London and although this has since been boosted, their budget of around £1.4m over a four-year-period is slender at best, when compared to a sport like Modern Pentathlon which will receive close to £6m over the same period.

With Stadnik, Krastanov and Butkevych all ineligible for UK Sport 'Athlete Personal Awardsexternal-link', as they are yet to attain British passports, British Wrestling's elite performance programme currently consists of only five athletes.

The brightest prospects amongst those include Commonwealth bronze victor Leon Rattigan from Bristol and Greco-Roman specialist Myroslav Dykun, qualified to represent England in Delhi, where he won gold, due to his marriage to a British woman and subsequent naturalisation.

"Our funding is based on our success, if we don't achieve a podium in 2012, it's highly likely that our funding will either be cut or it will be finished altogether and therefore we need to put the programme in a position where we develop some legacy," Morley told BBC Sport.

Crocker and Pilley have both raised their concerns about how funds have been used and question the future of the sport in light of the countries' relatively small British-born talent pool.

Watch British wrestlers in action at the 2010 GB Cup in Sheffield.

"I don't have a problem with the foreign athletes, most of them are very nice people and good luck to them, but I really do believe that UK Sport funding will actually have the opposite effect of a positive legacy on British Wrestling," said Cocker.

"I have been involved in the sport for 17 years, in my opinion it was much healthier before the money came in."

However, UK Sport who recently rated British Wrestling's progress as being 'on-track' for 2012.

"I think there are plenty of examples where people have come to the UK, have fallen in love with us and our sporting system and have stayed," said UK Sport director of performance Peter Keenexternal-link.

"For me the most important feature of all these stories is that what we gain is a better performance system in the UK for future generations.

"Regarding wrestling's training partners, if they've been here long enough and want to apply for citizenship, then we're comfortable with that," Keen told BBC Sport.

Despite the on-going arguement between some British wrestlers and the sport's national governing body, the British Olympic Association (BOA)external-link appear to concur with UK Sport's view.

The BOA have granted British Wrestling three guaranteed host-nation berths for the 2012 Olympics.

"We are delighted with the faith shown in British wrestling," said Morley.

"It fully endorses our year on year development as a sport, but also the consistent improvement of our elite wrestlers, some of who are now regularly among the medal contenders at international events."

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