Sambo wants to move out of judo’s shadow
ASTANA: It is a sport few know outside the former Soviet Union though its admirers regard it as one of the most physically demanding of the martial arts. Sambo, a Russian acronym for self-defence without weapons, was created in the 1920s to teach the Soviet Red Army the art of combat.
In many ways, sambo is similar to judo, using the same technique and scoring system, but sambo wrestlers wear tight shorts instead of baggy kimono trousers. Sambo enthusiasts say their sport is more exciting than judo. While sambo has a huge following in Russia, it remains a marginal sport in most Western countries, its popularity confined to ex-Soviet states and other traditional wrestling powers such as Bulgaria and Mongolia.
“It would take me hours to list all the advantages of sambo over judo,” said David Rudman, sambo’s first world champion and a self-proclaimed missionary for the sport since being elected president of FIAS, sambo’s world governing body, this year. “In essence, sambo is a combination of many forms of martial arts, designed to give Soviet soldiers the edge in combat fighting,” added the Russian, who won two European judo titles in 1969 and 1970 in addition to numerous sambo honours.
Rudman, 62, has a powerful ally in Russian President Vladimir Putin, who competed in sambo at national level before taking up judo in the early 1970s. This month Rudman made Putin an honourary FIAS president. Predictably, the Soviets dominated the sport in the early years, winning nine out of 10 gold medals at the first world sambo championships in 1973. The story goes that they could have won all 10 but settled for nine to give someone else a chance.
Olympic status: Since the break-up of the Soviet Union it has become more and more difficult for Russia to match that output. “I remember that in December 1991 the US team chief, a strong anti-communist, delighted in watching us compete as the Soviet Union for the last time,” Rudman recalled. “But I told him not to be so happy. I said to him that until now his team at least had a chance to win a medal but now the most he could hope for was 15th or 16th places because there were now 15 teams representing the different Soviet republics.”
FIAS now has 52 members and 35 countries sent teams to this month’s world championships in the Kazakh capital Astana. Competing in nine weight classes for both men and women, Russia still topped the medal table with eight golds ahead of Mongolia (four) and Ukraine (three). For years, sambo has tried to gain Olympic status without much success. “We had a good chance before the 1980 Games in Moscow as it was much easier to get into the Olympic programme back then than it is now,” Rudman said.
“Then the host country was allowed to add two demonstration sports, but sambo lacked leadership to push for admission.” Other experts, such as long-time International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Vitaly Smirnov, say Russia’s dominance has hurt sambo’s Olympic chances. “I’ve been telling them for years that they can’t win all the medals and expect other nations to like it,” Smirnov said. “No one is interested in a sport where one country wins all the medals.”
Russia superiority: Herve Gheldman, president of the Swiss sambo federation, says Russia’s superiority in the sport is inevitable. “I just told my French colleague that he would know Russia’s national anthem by heart after it was being played over and over again following their victories,” Gheldman told Reuters. “But what can we do? If you compare athletes from former Soviet countries with ours, it’s men fighting against boys.
“All our guys are pure amateurs who must work for a living while theirs are true professionals who get money to train and compete,” Gheldman said as French sambo chief Christian Bruzat nodded in approval. “Besides, Russia has thousands of athletes to choose from. We have about 100 in the whole of Switzerland with only about half a dozen capable of competing at international level.” US team coach Gene Fabricant added: “It cost our athletes a lot of money to come to Astana. First, they must take time off from work and if you add air tickets and visa costs it comes to almost $2,000 for each of our athletes just to come here.”
At least, Fabricant was able to send his team to Kazakhstan. Britain’s Robin Hyslop was not so lucky. “We had no information whatsoever about the world championships being held here,” Hyslop, president of the British sambo federation, told Reuters. “I was competing at the world masters championships two weeks ago in Prague, where I found out about this event. But we need at least six months’ notice to assemble the team, get visas, find sponsors etcetera,” Hyslop said. “I had to pay £100 ($172) just for a Russian visa. Good thing the Kazakh visa was complimentary.” reuters