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Olympian to Politician: How the greatest freestyle wrestler became a tool for Caucasus socialization

How did the greatest freestyle wrestler of all time get involved in Russian politics? Why is this significant? Karim Zidan delves into the political forces at play.

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) and Busaivar Saitiev (right0
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) and Busaivar Saitiev (right0
Wikicommons

16 years have passed since Buvaisar Saitiev stepped into Akhmad Kadyrov's palace as a 21-year old wrestling hero; 16 years since he became a part of the Chechen political elite.

At the turn of the millennium, shortly following the bitter end of the Second Chechen War, Buvaisar and younger brother Adam, arrived at the newly appointed Chechen leader's residence as Olympic champions. The elder had claimed Olympic Gold in 1996, while the younger brother had just returned from Sydney with a gold medal of his own.

Kadyrov had big plans for the unsuspecting young heroes. If Chechnya was to pivot away from another hopeless war, its leaders had to find alternative outlets for their aggression. Instead of radical fundamentalism, Kadyrov planned to preach sports socialization.

"This was part of his social policy," Buvaisar said (h/t TIME). "Socialization through sport."

And thus began a journey that took Buvaisar from the impoverished backwaters in Khasavyurt, to the advisor to the Head of the Chechen Republic.

"I was invited by the head of the region - a man who is my friend - Ramzan Kadyrov," Saitiev said. "A very energetic, bright politician. Being next to him is not boring. I am an adviser. I was very fond of people in Chechnya, and I'm very comfortable with where I feel like myself."

Saitiev, the first Chechen native to win a gold medal at the Olympics, is considered a national hero and arguably the greatest freestyle wrestler in history. His career span between 1994 to 2008 and included six World Championships, three Olympic gold medals, six European titles, and four Russian championships. He was also on the coaching staff for the Russian wrestling team ahead of the London Games in 2012.

Due to his remarkable achievements over a 14-year span, Buvaisar is seen as a hero amongst Chechens, as well as other regions in the North Caucasus. Though of Chechen ancestry, Saitiev was born in Khasavyurt, Dagestan - a region where Chechens are the second largest population (28%). Stories about his accomplishments in foreign lands inspired generations of youngsters from the various republics in the North Caucasus to aspire for something other than religious glorification.

Over time, Saitiev's role as a sports representative served political interests. Though his younger brother decided against a life in the spotlight, TIME explained that "Buvaysar served as one of the "trusted faces," or campaign reps, for Putin during the presidential race, which gave Putin another term in office."

Since then, Saitiev decided to run as a Dagestani representative for the State Duma under Putin's 'United Russia' Party. The primary involves 42 participants, including six current deputies from the Duma in Dagestan. Saitiev was in sixth place at last count, despite difficult competition against renowned politicians like the vice-speaker of the parliament of Dagestan Yuri Levitsky and high-profile Soviet-era test-pilot Magomed Tolboyev, who was decorated with the 'Hero of Russia' honor.

Saitiev's ethnicity will play a significant role the likelihood of him getting elected in the Khasavyurt region, according to pundits. Until 1944, Khasavyurt was considered a part of Chechnya, but Stalin's mass deportations forced the locals out of their homes. Stalin forced Dagestani Avars and Laks to do his bidding and exile the Chechens from their homeland. This created longlasting tension between Avars and Chechens in the Khasavyurt/Auhovsky regions.

Saitiev, who is near-unanimously beloved by young Caucasians, is believed to be the perfect candidate to be head the region's affairs.

The freestyle wrestling legend would not be the first combat sports professional to run for office following retirement. Aleksandr Karelin, considered by many as the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler of all time, was elected to the Duma in 2007 as a representative for Stavropol Krai. The three-time Olympic gold medalist with 887-2 career record is also on the Duma's committee on international affairs.

Two-time WBA heavyweight champion Nikolai Valuev became a Duma member through the United Russia Party in December 2011. The following year, he supported a proposed law which banned the adoption of Russian orphans by citizens of the US.

Other Russian athletes also transitioned to politics following successful careers. Two-time Grand Slam champion Marat Safin was elected in the State Duma in 2011. The retired Russian tennis player, who smashed over 1000 racquets during matchplay in 2011, also supported parliament's proposed law that banned the adoption of Russian orphans by US citizens. Two-time Olympic champion gymnast Svetlana Khorkina went on to become a deputy in the State Duma. Four-time Olympic medalist Evgeni Plushenko joined the political party A Just Russia and was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg in 2007. He gained notoriety for his poor attendance record since his election and eventually decided to quit politics a few years later.

If Buvaisar wins the election, he will become the latest high profile athlete to transition to Putin's 'United Russia' party. Listed as Kadyrov's advisor on his official voting page, it is difficult to assume that the greatest freestyle wrestler of all time will be used as anything other than a tool for sports socialization and political influence.