Once-secret KGB martial art fights for global recognition

It was once the official in-house martial art of the KGB, a mandatory part of hand-to-hand combat training for Soviet special forces and the favourite childhood hobby of Vladimir Putin. Now, sambo is enjoying growing popularity well beyond the borders of Russia and the former USSR, where it was developed in the 1920s and 1930s, and its promoters are pushing for it be recognised as an Olympic sport.

Sambo, whose name is an acronym for the Russian words for "self-defence without weapons," is similar to Japanese judo but has a greater variety of moves such as leg locks and on-the-ground grappling techniques.

Most vivid is the hard-hitting version known as combat sambo, which allows punches, kicks and chokes and was officially a state secret in Soviet times available only to the military, police and KGB.

"It's closer to street fighting and any technique is permitted," Sergei Yeliseyev, president of the European Sambo Federation, told AFP on the sidelines of a recent sambo tournament in Moscow.

"We don't restrict the athlete. Do you want to use throws? Go ahead! Chokeholds? Please. If you have good striking techniques, go ahead and use them too," Yeliseyev said as a pair of fighters sparred behind him.

Onlookers sat on bleachers in a huge arena and occasionally shouted cheers of encouragement as fighters in blue and red uniforms circled each other warily, then grabbed their opponents to wrestle them to the mat.

The grunts of sweaty fighters and the whistles of referees echoed throughout the arena in southern Moscow as it hosted the Anatoly Kharlampiyev World Supercup, a tournament named after one of sambo's founders.

"I've been doing sambo since I was four years old, all my life, basically," said Vasily Karaulov, 19, a nimble lightweight from the southern Russian city of Armavir. "I don't really do anything else. I like to wrestle."

Men and women from over 20 countries including France, Nepal and Japan took part in the tournament, though it was dominated by fighters from Russia and former Soviet republics.

French sambo coach Guillaume Alberti said he started out in judo, but made the switch after he was introduced to sambo by a Russian immigrant and found that it offered "more interesting possibilities" than judo.

Sambo is growing in popularity in France, said Alberti, who flies to Moscow once a month to train with Russian sambo masters.

"In the past 10 years, there are more and more clubs," he said, referring to his native France.

Promoters of sambo say it received a major boost when Vladimir Putin became president of Russia in 2000 and revealed during one of his first interviews with foreign media that he had practiced sambo as a child.

Putin, a former KGB agent who served as president for eight years and is now Russia's powerful prime minister, started practicing sambo at age 14 before switching to judo. He eventually obtained a black belt in judo.

"Vladimir Putin is the public face of sambo. Today his authority has given a new impulse to the development of our sport," said Yeliseyev, the sambo federation chief.

Sambo traces its origins to the 1920s and 1930 when it was developed as the official fighting style of the Red Army and Soviet security services.

Its creators borrowed elements of traditional fighting styles from various republics of the Soviet Union - such as Georgia's chidaoba, Moldova's trinta and Uzbekistan's kurash - as well as other martial arts like judo.

Another factor that has led to increasing international interest in sambo, promoters say, is the popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA) tournaments in which fighters of different styles battle it out.

Practictioners of combat sambo have done well in such tournaments, notably the reigning heavyweight MMA champion, Fedor Emelianenko of Russia.

Yeliseyev said the number of national sambo federations around the world had grown from 40 a decade ago to 73 today, while the number of sambo clubs worldwide had doubled in that period.

Such numbers have led to optimism among sambo's promoters as they fight for the ultimate form of international recognition: the introduction of sambo as a sport in the Summer Olympics.

"Sambo could realistically become an Olympic sport by 2020," Yeliseyev said. "But this will require a great deal of work, and not just by Russia, but by other countries with an interest in sambo."

 

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event
filmBut why were Back to the Future screenings cancelled?
News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Lewis Hamilton walks back to the pit lane with his Mercedes burning in the background
Formula 1
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con
comic-con 2014
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
News
i100
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

    £35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

    Employment Solicitor

    Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

    Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

    £600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

    Commercial Litigation Associate

    Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

    Day In a Page

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride