Daniel Etchells

I must admit, I’ve completely lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the Russian national anthem being played across the four sambo events I’ve covered for insidethegames over the past six months.

Eleven gold medals at this year’s European Championships in Zagreb were swiftly followed by five of the eight available at the Baku 2015 European Games in June, while in September, victory at the President’s Cup in Manchester couldn't have been any more conclusive for the Russians, winning the final 7-0.

It therefore came as little surprise that the country convincingly topped the medal standings at the recent World Championships in Casablanca, clocking up a total of 13 golds as Kazakhstan came closest to matching the tally with three.

But, while the history books will show a 38th overall triumph for Russia from 39 editions of the World Championships, the underlying story of the three-day event in Morocco’s largest city was the medal success of those countries from outside Europe and Asia, sambo’s continental strongholds.

Arguably the most satisfying performance from the perspective of the International Sambo Federation (FIAS) will be that of Venezuela’s Maria Guedez, whose gold medal in the women’s 48 kilogram category was the only one of 27 awarded that did not go the way of a European or Asian nation.

Given that sambo is pushing for a place on the Pan-American Games programme, Guedez’s victory over Kazakhstan’s Aigul Baikuleva, in what was the first final of the competition, will no doubt boost the sport's cause. 

Russia dominated the World Sambo Championships but a lot of other countries left their stamp on the event
Russia dominated the World Sambo Championships but a lot of other countries left their stamp on the event ©FIAS

Speaking to insidethegames before the following evening’s finals, FIAS President Vasily Shestakov said the world governing body is currently holding meetings and negotiations as part of its effort to take sambo, which is already part of the Asian Games and European Games, to another continental event.

And although Trinidad and Tobago’s Joash Walkins suffered defeat at the hands of Bulgaria’s Veselin Ivanov in the combat men’s 62kg final later that same evening, his gold medal match appearance in itself will almost certainly have heightened Shestakov's optimism.

Also in sambo’s sights is a spot at the African Games, which had already received a shot in the arm before the action had even begun, owing to the fact that this year’s World Championships were the first in history to be held on the continent.

Add to this two bronze medals for Cameroon at the event, through Paule Sitcheping in the women’s 60kg category and Diodjo Wetio in the women’s over 80kg class, and it’s clear to see that sambo is staking another strong claim.

A dispute between the Association of National Olympic Committee of Africa (ANOCA) and the Association of African Sports Confederations (AASC) over who will run the African Games going forward presents what Shestakov describes as a "difficult situation".

But with the AASC welcoming the African Sambo Confederation’s membership application at an Extraordinary Session of its General Assembly in September, the signs are good for FIAS if the two bodies can settle their differences. 

Securing sambo’s place at the Pan-American Games and African Games will almost definitely improve the competitiveness of future World Championships, with the 2015 edition perhaps providing a glimpse of what to expect in the future.

"The fights are becoming much more interesting," Shestakov told insidethegames at the Complexe Sportif Mohamed V de Casablanca.

"And there are no underdogs now.

"We could never expect Trinidad and Tobago to be in the finals of the World Championships, and of course, Venezuela to win a gold medal."

Venezuela’s Maria Guedez was the only gold medallist at the World Sambo Championships in Casablanca from outside Europe and Asia, winning the women’s 48 kilogram category
Venezuela’s Maria Guedez was the only gold medallist at the World Sambo Championships in Casablanca from outside Europe and Asia, winning the women’s 48 kilogram category ©FIAS

Of course, everything that sambo is striving for at this moment in time is all geared towards its main objective of gaining recognition from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

FIAS has submitted an official recognition application to become a sport recognised by the Olympic Movement and, according to Shestakov, is in close contact with the IOC Sports Department. 

The Russian’s claim on Saturday (November 14) that all members of the world governing body are now "united" in their views on how best to move the sport forward, after admitting significant conflicts of opinion had existed for some time following his election in 2009, is also a positive sign.

"Everything has been settled so we believe that we have no barriers left," he told insidethegames.

"We’re waiting for the next IOC Session [in Rio de Janeiro next August] where they will make announcements about the applications and we hope that sambo will be one to be recognised."

With the World Championships generally held in November, FIAS should be a lot clearer as to where it stands with the IOC by the time Bulgaria hosts sambo's flagship event next year.  

Slowly but surely, the sport is heading in the right direction and if it can manage to secure its place on the Pan-American Games and African Games programme, it will become a lot more difficult for the IOC to ignore its application.

A number of people I spoke to during this year's World Championships seemed extremely confident that sambo will take the coveted step, but whether that’s blind optimism still remains to be seen.

What is for sure is that the sport has come an extremely long way during the six years that Shestakov has headed FIAS, and the fact that IOC recognition is even being talked about is an achievement in itself.

Two years remain on his current Presidential term and with support for his leadership seemingly stronger than ever, it could be two very productive years for sambo.

The old adage that some things never change can certainly be applied to the 2015 World Championships, but their legacy could prove to be a lot more significant than what initially meets the eye.