Ukraine’s first black MP is now also its first gold medal winner in Tokyo

Ukraine’s Zhan Beleniuk poses after the men’s Greco-Roman 87kg wrestling competition of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Makuhari Messe in Tokyo on 4 August, 2021

Ukraine’s first black member of parliament, Zhan Beleniuk, has now also made Olympic history by being the country’s first gold medal winner at Tokyo 2020.

Beleniuk serves as the deputy head of the Committee on Youth and Sports in Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada.

On Wednesday, the Ukrainian parliamentarian and athlete defeated Hungary’s Viktor Lorincz in the Greco-Roman wrestling 87kg category final in Tokyo.

The two-time world champion was seen dancing around the wrestling platform holding a Ukrainian flag after his win.

Beleniuk also became the nation’s first Greco-Roman wrestler to collect multiple medals at Olympic Games: he won silver at Rio 2016. He said: “Now I am an Olympic champion, and that was my dream.”

The Tokyo gold medalist was elected to the Ukrainian parliament in July 2019, becoming the first person of mixed race to sit as one of the chamber’s 450 deputies.

Beleniuk has admitted that juggling politics and sport isn’t easy, and said he has been devoting most of his time to prepare for the Olympics.

In a 2019 interview, he was quoted as saying: “My first goal is the Olympic Games [in Tokyo], but it’s only a year. After that, I will be 100 per cent devoted to Ukrainian politics.”

Born in 1991 to a Rwandan father who was a pilot and Ukrainian mother who was a dressmaker, Beleniuk started wrestling when he was nine years old, in part because of his early experiences with racism.

At 19, in 2010, he went the professional route, winning his first international medal (bronze) at the 2012 European Champion­ships in Belgrade, Serbia.

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The Ukrainian Weekly reported that his father died fighting in Rwanda’s civil war, “leaving him to be raised by his Ukrainian family in a one-room apartment in Kyiv.” Beleniuk has described how he encountered “racist abuse as a child”, being quoted as saying that he was “too light for Africa, too dark for Ukraine”.

Ukraine’s first ever Olympic gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling was won by Vyacheslav Oliynyk at Atlanta in 1996.

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