The 2020 Summer Olympics will come to a close on August 8. While these Games will certainly be remembered as much for various displays of outstanding athleticism and sportsmanship, they will also be remembered as the Games that were held under extremely difficult circumstances for athletes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The athletes, event organizers and indeed everyone associated with the 2020 Summer Games should be commended for all that they have done to ensure this year’s Olympics, which were delayed from the previous year, took place.
For Ukraine’s athletes, these games have brought both celebration and disappointment.
As of August 5, Ukraine’s athletes have won a combined 13 medals: one gold, three silver and nine bronze. That medal count is already better than the total number of medals Ukraine won at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro (11), but it’s still well below the totals Ukraine once garnered (19 in London in 2012, 22 in Beijing in 2008). And we should note that this year’s total medal count was achieved by a pool of 155 Ukrainian athletes, well below the numbers they had when they won more total medals (they had 203 athletes in 2016, 238 in 2012, and 243 in 2008). By all accounts, then, we believe Ukrainian athletes have exceeded expectations at these Games.
But if you wanted to find a shining Ukrainian star at these games, we suggest you look closely at Zhan Beleniuk, the reigning and two-time Greco-Roman wrestling world champion who on August 4 added to his already impressive accomplishments by winning Ukraine’s to date lone gold medal at these Olympics. Oh, and by the way, not only is Beleniuk an Olympic gold medalist; he is also currently a member of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada. As our sports correspondent, Ihor Stelmach, pointed out in a story in this issue of The Weekly, the 30-year-old Beleniuk, who is Ukraine’s first black member of parliament, celebrated his gold medal winning performance with a Ukrainian flag draped around him.
Beleniuk, whose father was a Rwandan pilot who died fighting in that country’s civil war, was raised by his mother, a Ukrainian dressmaker, in a single-room apartment in Kyiv.
Despite encountering regular episodes of racism, Beleniuk is an unabashed Ukrainian patriot who in 2017 joined the Ukrainian army as a junior lieutenant. He was offered positions on the Olympic teams of other nations, but he turned them all down, saying that he feels he belongs in and with Ukraine. He is often photographed wearing traditional embroidered Ukrainian shirts and he celebrates his victories by performing parts of Ukraine’s traditional dance, the Hopak.
After Beleniuk won his Olympic gold medal, he embraced a Ukrainian flag brought to him by his coach. “Now I’m an Olympic champion,” Beleniuk said. “And that was my dream.” Upon completing his participation in the Tokyo Games, he said previously that he would return to his home country, where “I will be 100 percent devoted to Ukrainian politics.”
“The main goal is to develop sports in Ukraine, the sports movement, so that our nation could be healthy, athletic and show good results in the international arena,” he said in an interview in 2019. Kudos to you, Olympic champion Zhan Beleniuk!