Geoff Berkeley

International Sambo Federation (FIAS) President Vasily Shestakov is used to being faced with doubters when voicing his lofty ambitions for the sport.

But while some may scoff at the idea of sambo featuring at the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic Games, Shestakov is determined to fulfil his California dream.

Taking a short break from watching the action at the World Sambo Championships in Tashkent in Uzbekistan, Shestakov is sat in a lavish box at the Yunusobod Sport Complex reflecting on a moment that cynics thought was not possible.

Surrounded by the finest glassware and tea service with fruit piled high on a plate in the centre of the table, Shestakov takes great pleasure in speaking about the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) decision to award sambo full recognition in July.

It was an historic achievement for the sport and proof that perseverance can prevail.

Shestakov has been in charge of the FIAS for 12 years, but it did not take him long to realise the challenges facing his sport when trying to make an impression with the IOC.

Shortly after being first elected as FIAS President in 2009, Shestakov held a meeting with the then IOC President Jacques Rogge.

It did not end well, with Rogge mistaking sambo for a type a dance move, Shestakov recalls.

After that jibe, any hopes of being recognised by the IOC seemed faint until Shestakov met with Thomas Bach, Rogge’s successor, at the SportAccord Convention in Belek in Turkey in 2014 which revived his ambitions.

Senior reporter Geoff Berkeley interviews FIAS President Vasily Shestakov at the World Sambo Championships in Tashkent ©FIAS
Senior reporter Geoff Berkeley interviews FIAS President Vasily Shestakov at the World Sambo Championships in Tashkent ©FIAS

"I was very much surprised as he was very well aware of sambo, all the details of the problems we had and all areas of improvement," Shestakov told insidethegames during an exclusive interview in Tashkent.

"The meeting was very productive, and he gave us a lot of great advice and recommendations which we followed. For example, we moved the World Sambo Championships from Moscow to Tashkent this year because of the CAS [Court of Arbitration for Sport] decision.

"We have a good working relationship with WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] and we are working on a lot of social projects with Peace and Sport."

The FIAS' efforts paid dividends earlier this year when it was one of six International Federations to be fully recognised at the IOC Session in Tokyo.

It was a major moment in the sport’s history, but the FIAS is not resting on its laurels with the acknowledgement paving the way for potential Olympic inclusion.

Shestakov is now striving to make sambo an Olympic sport for the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics.

One potential stumbling block facing the FIAS is the fractious relationship between the United States and Russia.

Sambo - a martial art and combat sport developed and used by the Soviet Red Army in the early 1920s to improve their hand-to-hand combat abilities - is deeply rooted in Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was appointed as FIAS Honorary President in 2005 and views sambo as Russia’s national sport.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is one of the FIAS' Honorary Presidents  ©Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin is one of the FIAS' Honorary Presidents ©Getty Images

"This can be an issue of course," said Shestakov on Russia-US relations.

"We understand the politics are there, but we are trying to think about the sport more because sambo is quite popular in America."

Shestakov highlighted that many sambists, including Russia’s Khabib Nurmagomedov, had competed in the US due to the lure of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and other professional mixed martial arts promoters, and pointed to the fact that sambo was used in the American action movie John Wick, featuring Keanu Reeves.

The Russian official is also convinced the US would have a strong chance of winning Olympic medals in the sport if it features at Los Angeles 2028.

"It is important to mention the history and tradition of sambo in the US is quite long and rich," said Shestakov.

"At times there have been world champions of sambo and medallists from there.

"Combat sambo is close to mixed martial arts which the United States is very famous for.

"We understand that for any country hosting the Games it is important for them to win medals so combat sambo, for example, is something that they have already been very successful in."

At the recent FIAS Congress in Tashkent, American Mikhail Kozitskiy was elected onto the organisation’s Executive Committee - a move Shestakov that believes could bolster sambo's bid to be added to the Olympic programme.

Kozitskiy, vice-president of both USA Sambo and the Pan American Sambo Union, will be tasked with fostering relationships with the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

Shestakov has also set his sights on creating a platform for sambo to play some part at the Paris 2024 Olympics.

The US was one of 39 nations competing in Uzbekistan but failed to get on the medals table ©FIAS
The US was one of 39 nations competing in Uzbekistan but failed to get on the medals table ©FIAS

"Our main goal is to put a lot of work into the US," said Shestakov.

"Of course, the programme for Paris 2024 is closed but we have some ideas of trying to get there as a demonstration sport.

"We are negotiating with the French Olympic Committee."

With sports including surfing, skateboarding and breaking entering the Olympic programme in recent years, the IOC is clearly keen to appeal to younger audiences.

But this does not phase Shestakov, who believes he may have an answer to that in the shape of beach sambo.

"Beach sambo is very exciting discipline," Shestakov explained.

"What we like about it is that it is very democratic and accessible because you don’t need special equipment. You just need sand and athletes.

"The rules are very simple for the audience as there are no difficult techniques. The one who falls first loses and the one that threw them is the winner.

"The sport was very well appreciated especially in Africa, Pan America and Asia.

"It looks good on TV and we believe that we are one of a few martial arts that has a beach discipline.

"We held the first World Championships in Cyprus this year.

"We are considering all our disciplines [for Los Angeles 2028 inclusion] including beach sambo."

Beach sambo is considered by FIAS as a discipline to push for Olympic inclusion with ©Getty Images
Beach sambo is considered by FIAS as a discipline to push for Olympic inclusion with ©Getty Images

Russia has been the dominant force at the World Sambo Championships, but the gulf between it and the rest of the nations is starting to close, which can only be a good thing for the sport.

The All-Russian Sambo Federation (RSF) won just three of their four finals on the opening day in Tashkent before ending the tournament in impressive fashion with eight golds.

While the RSF topped the standings, Uzbekistan and Belarus helped themselves to 11 and eight medals respectively, including three golds each.

There were also titles for Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Cameroon, Israel and Kyrgyzstan, while Trinidad and Tobago became the first Caribbean nation to win a world medal in sambo.

Russia's name and flag were banned from the World Championships because of WADA sanctions imposed on the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, so athletes instead competed under an RSF banner.

It would now be nice to see the World Championships move to different corner of the globe having not been played outside of Europe and Asia since African nation Morocco staged the 2015 edition.

There is no doubt sambo is on an upward trajectory and Shestakov is enjoying proving doubters wrong as he plots a course to Los Angeles 2028.

"We understand that this is something that is very difficult to do, but people were telling us the same when we started the process of getting recognition [from the IOC]," said Shestakov.

"Even people from sambo were saying that this will never happen, you can forget this, but we worked hard and we got there.

"When we started our work towards full recognition, not just Jacques Rogge but many IOC members didn’t know what sambo is.

"Now all IOC members know what sambo is so you can feel the difference."