Week in Review

The road to nowhere for NZ’s top wrestler

Last year New Zealand's top female Olympic wrestling prospect flew to Slovakia to compete at the world championships, only to be turned away from the event. Next month she plans to travel to Estonia for the 2019 UWW world championships, where the same thing will likely happen again. What's going on? Steve Deane reports.

WHERE TO START?

We may as well begin with something on which pretty much everyone agrees.

Anastasiya Korzh, a 19-year-old from Christchurch, by way of the Ukraine – the country she emigrated from with her parents as a toddler – is New Zealand’s best junior female Olympic-style wrestling prospect.

In 2015, she placed fifth at the junior world championships, underscoring her potential on the global stage. In New Zealand, and wider beyond into Oceania, there is no-one in her weight and age class at the same level.

That’s partly because there is literally no-one else competing at that level – but we’ll return to that later.

For now, the most important thing you need to know about Anastasiya Korzh is that she won’t be competing at the upcoming world championships in Estonia in August.

A swimming instructor and event and activity officer with Christchurch City Council's sport and activity unit, Korzh has trained nearly every day of her life to get to this point. She’s clearly good enough to compete on the world stage. No one disputes that. And she intends to travel to the world tournament.

New Zealand’s national wrestling body, the New Zealand Olympic Wrestling Union (NZOWU), insists it would like to see her competing.

But Korzh almost certainly won’t be flying the Kiwi flag in Estonia next month.

The explanation of why not is both extremely simple and remarkably complicated.

THE SIMPLE FACTS

The letter from NZOWU president Marlene Pouri-Lane to Anastasiya Korzh couldn’t be more clear if it was etched in crystal.

Korzh won’t be competing in Estonia because she has not followed the correct process to enter the event. She is not eligible because she is not a registered athlete with NZOWU. What’s more, she did not compete in this year’s Oceania championships – a prerequisite for world championships entry mandated by United World Wrestling (UWW), the sport’s global governing body.

“We would like you to become an active member of Wrestling NZ and I would encourage you [sic] join an affiliated club and Wrestling NZ. Our website has information on Clubs in NZ and you should choose the club in closest proximity to where you are living,” Pouri-Lane’s email states.

When LockerRoom puts in a call to the New Zealand Olympic Committee, the reasonableness of that advice is repeatedly underscored.

It is not unreasonable to expect an athlete to affiliate to their national association and therefore be subjected to the protocols to which all athletes representing New Zealand sign up to, is the succinct summary of NZOC’s stance.

Korzh doesn’t agree. She won’t be affiliating with NZOWU. Not now. Not ever.

“I have dignity, right, and obligation to not associate myself with such toxic people,” the young wrestler states in an email to LockerRoom.

BEHIND THE SIMPLE FACTS

There is no evidence to suggest NZOWU is corrupt. That’s important to note.

In fact, that statement is only included here because it speaks to the depth of Korzh’s anger and ill-feeling towards NZOWU. That kind of deep-seated anger seldom stirs without reason, and typically takes time to build.

In Korzh’s case, her frustrations can be traced back half a decade, perhaps even twice that long, to a previous generation. While there's no evidence to support accusations of corruption, there is plenty to suggest that she has been treated poorly by the sport’s officials.

Last year, for instance, she applied for the UWW licence required to compete at international events through officials at the sport’s headquarters in Switzerland. Korzh paid the fee of 100 Swiss francs in July. UWW wrote to her in August saying her licence had been purchased by her association and validated.

In October – after the junior world championships in Slovakia in September – UWW dispatched her licence to NZOWU.

As in previous years, because Korzh was not affiliated to NZOWU, they declined to forward her licence. The intention was to prevent her competing without their blessing. The combined efforts of UWW and NZOWU were successful – Korzh flew to Slovakia but, unable to present her licence, she was barred from competing.

It’s worth noting here that New Zealand entered no other athlete in that championship. This wasn’t a case of an athlete using a back door to usurp a rival.

“It probably got held up by me in all honesty,” says Pouri-Lane of Korzh’s licence.

“We’ve got no problem with her entering events but she has to do it through us.”

If NZOWU’s actions in blocking Korzh from competing without their sanction were defensible, what followed next is less so. In late December, when it was long since of any use to her, Pouri-Lane posted Korzh her UWW licence.

Korzh was incensed, viewing that action as insulting and provocative. Pouri-Lane, for her part, says she understands why Korzh would feel that way, and can’t explain why she posted the licence when she did.

“In all honesty I don’t know [why I sent it then],” she admits.

One thing is clear: Korzh is convinced forces are conspiring against her – and the actions of UWW and NZOWU didn’t exactly dispel that notion.

The envelope containing her by-then useless licence would not be the last time Korzh would receive provocative communications from NZOWU.

That seemingly innocuous email advising her to join her nearest wrestling club? There was a reason that didn’t go down at all well.

For starters, Korzh is already a member of a wrestling ‘club’ in Christchurch, where she is coached by her father, Dmitri – a central figure in this dispute, which we’ll come to in time.

And then there is the fact that Pouri-Lane’s direction to locate the closest affiliated club using the NZOWU website would point Korzh to the South Canterbury club in Timaru – an entity that is not only located a two-hour drive away, but whose head coach is currently in custody awaiting trial on child sex offences.

In a phone interview with LockerRoom, Pouri-Lane insists she was not aware of any issues with the accused coach, Peter Charles Berry, at the time she sent the email. She later emails to say the nearest NZUWO affiliated club to Christchurch is, in fact, in Rangiora. That club, however, at the time of writing, is not listed on NZUWO’s directory.

“I don't want to be a part of a toxic environment and train with negative and hateful people who don't even have the required skills to be involved in quality training, as well as refuse to learn it,” says Korzh of Pouri-Lane’s instruction.

“So I find that statement very pathetic and a form of mockery.”

If this article were a game-show, you’d see the next words coming. You probably do, anyway: but wait, there’s more.

DAMNED IF YOU DO, DAMNED IF YOU DON’T

If there is one thing in this world that Anastasiya Korzh and Marlene Pouri-Lane agree on, it’s that the rule requiring athletes to enter their continental championships to gain eligibility for world championship competition is counter-productive.

That sentence is carefully worded – it doesn’t describe the rule as UWW’s rule because Anastasiya and Dmitri Korzh don’t fully accept that it is. And it doesn’t use the word ‘compete’, because entering the Oceania championships, and competing in them, are often enough not the same things.

Had Korzh complied with Pouri-Lane’s direction this year, she would have claimed the Oceania title unopposed, as no other athlete entered her division – a fairly common occurrence. She would have also been required to make a return flight to Nauru to claim her medal.

As an entirely self-funded athlete, Korzh has limited financial resources. The many thousands of dollars it would have cost her to make the pointless trip to Nauru would have had to come from money allocated to pay for her trip to Estonia.

So to recap: Korzh was informed quite categorically by NZOWU that to be eligible to compete in Estonia she must comply with a direction that would mean she would not be able to compete in Estonia.

That regulation couldn’t be more of a Catch-22 had it been drawn up by Joseph Heller.

“We’ve had that argument with UWW as well, but it doesn’t make any difference,” says Pouri-Lane of the regulation.

“They don’t recognise things like the cost for us to travel to Nauru or Tahiti. We have been trying to express things like that to United World Wrestling, but we haven’t done a great job of it.

“We are still bound by the regulations.”

And by ‘we’, Pouri-Lane means every Kiwi wrestler wanting to compete at the world championships. It might well be the case that the rule is inconvenient for all, however for Korzh the reality is that the outcome is the same whether she complies with it not: she competes against nobody – and once again it is her sport’s national body ensuring that it is the case.

“Go there and do what? asks Korzh. “I don’t get any experience – I only spend money, time and effort travelling there, while not concentrating on my training.”

There is a bit of history, as it happens, when it comes to NZOWU acting in a way that prevents Korzh from taking to the mat.

Attempts were made, she says, by NZOWU to block her from competing at world championship events in 2015, 2016 and 2017. In 2015 and 2016 those attempts were unsuccessful. However, in 2017, when she arrived in Tampere, Finland, to contest the world championships, her entry was initially refused and she was denied access to the athletes’ hotel.

A lack of funds to support a coach meant she had travelled to the event alone. She ended up sleeping on a couch in the hotel lobby. She was 17.

Eventually she was granted permission to compete, however her weight class had already been contested, so she entered a higher weight division where she was over-matched, and finished well down the field.

But perhaps the toughest pill to swallow came a year earlier, when Korzh was overlooked for selection to the Youth Olympic Games. Two New Zealand athletes qualified, but only one could go. NZOWU selected Melinda Bramley ahead of Korzh.

Dmitri Korzh provided video to LockerRoom of the contests between Korzh and Bramley at the 2012 and 2013 national championships – both are won easily by Korzh.

Dmitri Korzh says his daughter isn’t the only athlete he has trained who has been poorly treated by NZOWU on the selection front. In 2013, Tayla Ford, a Commonwealth Games bronze medallist in 2014, missed out on world championship selection to Koria Pouri-Lane, Marlene Pouri-Lane’s daughter.

Korzh provided LockerRoom video of a head-to-head match between Pouri-Lane and Ford, which he says demonstrates a clear gulf in class between the pair.

Lingering resentment over perceived selectorial bias and manipulative administration is unquestionably a part of this story. But it is far from the whole story. The origins of this standoff, in fact, date back to 2002 when Dmitri Korzh, a retired pilot instructor from the USSR Airforce turned early childhood educator and wrestling coach, came to New Zealand to help develop the sport here.

GO HOME TO RUSSIA

Dmitri Korzh has heard the “go home” slur plenty since he first came to New Zealand in 2002. Mainly from members of the wrestling community he has annoyed. And there are plenty of them.

Korzh mentions it not because he finds it overly offensive, but because the lack of geographical knowledge of his accosters underscores their ignorance.

And ignorance clearly annoys Korzh. Upon arriving in New Zealand, he was shocked by the state of ‘competitive’ Olympic-style wrestling. Seventeen years later, that hasn’t changed.

It’s doubtful he has always expressed his disapproval subtly. Tact is not an attribute he appears overly blessed with. And if there is one word that best sums up his world view, it is ‘intractable’.

“He is a different character,” says Lewis Lester, a student of Dmitri Korzh, who has also contributed financially to help send Anastasiya overseas to compete. “He is nice guy, but he fights for what he believes in. To some people he comes across as erratic. But he just wants to do what is best for his daughter.”

Since he first contacted LockerRoom on June 18, seeking help for the “human rights violation” being perpetrated on his daughter (he was referred to this reporter by Transparency International New Zealand), Korzh has sent this reporter 26 emails on the subject. Many of these emails stretch to thousands of words.

They contain background information on figures ranging from voluntary New Zealand wrestling officials through to a former Olympic champion wrestler with links to the Russian mafia, who now occupies an influential position in the sport’s administration.

There are references to controversial Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, and a novel by Nikolai Gogol called Dead Souls that was published in 1842. 'Dead souls' is the term the novelist uses to describe the Russian middle class of the time – and how Korzh views the vast majority of administrators in his sport, both in New Zealand and at a global level.

It is not hard to see how Dmitri Korzh could fall out with people – and struggle to attract widespread sympathy for his cause.

“It is clear that you consider yourself above all authorities without any function/title at a national level,” a stinging letter to Korzh from UWW president Nenad Lalovic, dated September 2018, states.

“It is unfortunate that you nourish your frustrations in a negative manner instead of finding a suitable solution that would help your daughters [sic] wrestling career.”

For Korzh, the letter is simply more evidence of what he's up against – a web of organisations acting in concert to protect their own interests and reinforce their legitimacy. In fairness, there are elements of Lalovic’s letter that tend to support that view.

“Your allegations against UWW are seriously taken into consideration and your case is under investigation by the UWW Ethics and Legal Commission,” the letter states.

Followed by: “Your case will be quickly dismissed as your accusations are toxic to the sport of wrestling.”

There is no doubt that Dmitri Korzh is a difficult person. He is, at heart, a purist and an individualist. Wrestling is a pure sport that pits one athlete against another in a contest of skill, strength, courage and will. To Korzh, nothing should impede that. Ever.

Any actions by officials and administrators that discourage competition rather than promoting it are viewed by Korzh as damaging to the sport and contrary to the spirit of competition. It’s a binary view almost guaranteed to alienate anyone who doesn’t agree with him.

But here’s the thing about Dmitri Korzh – he believes wrestling in this part of the world is dying.

And, just because he is borderline impossible to work with, that doesn’t make him wrong.

A chart Dmitri Korzh compiled and presented to UWW highlighting the decline of women's wrestling in Oceania between 1995 and 2013.

The fact that there was not a single opponent for Anastasiya Korzh to wrestle at the Oceania Championships would tend to support his view.

And, as it stands, next month - just like last year - New Zealand won’t contest the world championships at junior level at all.

“I don’t have faith in [NZOWU] developing athletes that will get medals at all,” says Tristan Hamer, a facilitator of the children’s wrestling group coached by Korzh, who reached out to LockerRoom saying he had witnessed the “suffering Dmitri has endured at the hand of NZOWU first-hand” for many years.

“There has been nothing developed from the ground up at all.

“The only two in the last decade who have got medals are Sam Belkin and Tayla [Ford]. Tayla was trained by Dmitri and you can see the decline in [her performance record] from when [NZOWU] took over coaching her. And Sam has done all self-funded trips overseas to pick up his skills.

“I’ve been involved in wrestling for a while and I watched that team they sent to the last Commonwealth Games. They were very hopeful of a medal but everyone got slaughtered, even the most experienced people on the team.

“One girl didn’t make it there because she broke a leg in weight training a week out. That is not a very professional approach to competition, doing weight training a week out.

“Not only that, when you look at some of the people they have been sending to Youth Olympics and things like that, when they talk about the qualification criteria, a lot of these kids they have been sending have not been meeting the criteria they have been attempting to hold Ana [Korzh] to.”

The selection of New Zealand's 2018 Commonwealth Games team appears to be a case in point. Korzh was denied selection because she did not compete at the 2017 Commonwealth championships in Johannesburg – a mandatory qualifying event.

Athletes who did make the cut for the team included Brahm Richards, who placed fifth out of five at the Commonwealth champs and then 12th out of 12 at the Commonwealth Games; Akash Khullar, who placed fifth out of five at the Commonwealth champs and eighth at Commonwealth Games; Toby Fitzpatrick placed seventh out of eight at the Commonwealth champs and ninth at the Commonwealth Games; and Michelle Montague, who placed fourth out of four at the Commonwealth champs. 

When Montague withdrew from the Games team injured, the Korzhs petitioned NZUWO for Anastasiya to take her place. That request was declined because she had not competed in Johannesburg and therefore could not demonstrate that she was likely to finish in the top six.

Korzh had, though, competed in the 2016 Commonwealth championships, claiming a bronze medal in the senior class despite being just 16.

“On the one hand they are saying she has to meet criteria, but then they will send other kids with little to no experience, some who don’t even compete on the day,” says Hamer. “It is a massive waste of resource.”

Hamer describes the dispute between NZOWU and Korzh as having “gone beyond professional and become personal”.

“There has been a bit of back and forth there. And they probably don’t like Dmitri trying to bypass them and want to be in control of the reins," Hamer says. 

“But, when it comes to wrestling, he is an expert in his field and he is pretty hard to argue with because what he says makes sense. He gets the results. But his manner is a bit abrupt for some people.

“I know he is difficult to get along with, some people will say impossible. I think this comes back to being able to manage and deal with people. At the end of the day it is a failure on their part to make it work, because if you want to make it work, you will.”

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

In 2002, Dmitri Korzh was employed by FILA (the previous name for UWW) and the IOC as a regional development officer charged with growing the sport in Oceania. Having enjoyed success developing wrestlers to Olympic level in Guam, he was recruited to perform a similar role in New Zealand.

Upon arrival, he discovered a sport in disarray – and that the officials who had recruited him were no longer involved in the sport.

“Everything was basically dead. There was only one man who met me at the airport and he didn’t know what to do with me,” Korzh says.

So Korzh spent two years travelling the country in an old Nissan Maxima, talking to anyone he could find who was involved in the sport, attempting to find a way to develop a high performance programme with the goal of producing Olympic athletes.

He came here with his partner, Olena Bondarenko, and the couple’s daughter Anastasiya.

While Korzh would ultimately abandon his attempts to work with New Zealand Wrestling and settle in Christchurch, Bondarenko, a former Soviet Union judo champion, who had converted to wrestling under Korzh’s guidance, became a New Zealand citizen and represented the country on the global stage.

According to Korzh, she was destined to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but things went awry at a qualifying tournament in Canberra. Korzh says Bondarenko dropped her Australian opponent with a "single leg hold" when the contest was tied and should have been awarded the victory. However the move was ignored by an Australian referee and the victory was instead awarded to Bondarenko’s opponent.

Korzh wanted to appeal the result – and was confident it would be successful – however NZOWU officials refused to lodge the appeal.

“The victory was awarded to the Australian and she went to the Olympic Games,” says Dmitri. “We had no money to support Olena’s travel and development, and she was a psychological breakdown completely.”

That incident appears to have marked the last time Korzh worked willingly with NZOWU. Athletes he has trained in Christchurch over the years have competed in tournaments as ‘members’ of the Auckland-based Dilworth club. One of them was Ford – currently New Zealand’s top senior wrestler on the international stage.

Ford’s name comes up frequently in discussions with Korzh and NZOWU. For the national body, Ford’s success is validation that its high-performance programmes are on track. For Korzh, she is an example of a ‘daughter’ lost and a talent stolen away.

Korzh introduced Ford to wrestling as a child and trained her for 12 years, much of that time in a local park. However the pair, who considered each other family, are now estranged. Korzh appears to have received little or no credit for Ford’s achievements. He believes she was manipulated into leaving his tutelage and aligning with NZOWU.

Ford now lives and competes out of Australia, adhering to NZOWU’s rule that athletes must be affiliated to them via a technical membership of the Mt Maunganui club.

Ford did not speak with LockerRoom for this article, but did answer emailed questions submitted via Pouri-Lane.

“He was family, he meant a lot to me,” Ford says of Korzh in her email.

“Dmitri prepared me physically extremely well and [credit for] the technical aspect [of my success] goes to him. But on the mental side of the sport, that credit goes elsewhere.”

Ford says NZOWU was not involved in her decision to part ways with Korzh.

“NZOWU had no input in my decision, I had little to no contact with them at that time and went on my own to contact them after I had branched away from Dmitri.”

The separation was the result of a clash as Ford attempted to return from a serious knee injury in 2011.

“Dmitri spoke with my father one training session and gave his viewpoint of how he thought I would progress. He told my father I wouldn’t get anywhere with my wrestling and that I wouldn’t get any funding, my father told me this and at my next training I asked him about it.

“In short he lied and tried to change his story and what the conversation was about. After that I felt discouraged, hurt and betrayed and decided then and there that I wasn’t going to go back to train with him again and I went my separate way.

“Having that sort of clarity from someone who mentored me from the age of 7/8 years old until I was 20, it hurt, and until this day it is still quite raw.”

Korzh describes those events differently.

Prior to the 2010 Christchurch earthquake, he had made arrangements for Ford to be hosted in Europe to train and further her skills in preparation for an attempt to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. However, after the quake, Ford’s family felt it was important to remain in Christchurch.

“I said ‘Okay I respect your decision’. I felt it a necessity that she must go, but I never force her," Korzh says.

“She stayed here and she got injured. Somebody pushed her playing rugby and she screwed her knee.”

The injury required surgery. Not long after the operation, Korzh says, Ford came to him saying she wanted to compete in the London Olympics. He felt she had missed that boat by not going to Europe, and didn’t think it was viable for her to qualify in the time-frame available following her injury.

He says he told her that even if by some miracle she qualified through Oceania and Africa, she would not be ready to perform in London.

“Just to go to the Olympic Games because you qualify and have a holiday was not our goal. And I would not recommend you go to any competition injured anyway,” was his message.

Ford, he says, travelled to the Oceania championships against his advice. She won her match but re-injured her knee in the process, ending her attempt to qualify for London.

Korzh believes it was NZOWU officials who convinced her to make that decision.

“She called me 'father' and she say we was like a family. How come if for 12 years we were a family and then over one conversation she wasn’t even part of change everything? I don’t know how that is possible?

“I said ‘Look, we need to have a long-term plan – four years at least'.

“If there is no money how can we compete? We need to be realistic about our funding. If there is no money then we need to search for it.”

Korzh says he was also baffled as to why he and Olena were replaced by NZOWU as Ford’s coaches in favour of Mark Grayling for the 2010 Youth Olympics.

He followed up those comments in a phone conversation with a 3200-word email that includes a screenshot of Ford’s UWW bio – which lists Mark Grayling (since 2014) and Marlene Pouri-Lane’s husband Pete (since 2017) as her coaches. There is no mention of Dmitri Korzh on the bio.

A belief that NZOWU will use his experience and expertise and take undue credit for his work is one of the main reasons Korzh refuses to engage with the organisation, says Hamer.

“I don’t know if Dmitri will come to a place of trust because there had been a few foul doings in terms of using his development and the credentials of his athletes [by NZOWU officials] to put themselves in higher positions of power.”

For Korzh, it is clearly also a matter of free will. He believes, unequivocally, that wrestling is an individual sport.

The New Zealand model of athletes belonging to a club that answers to a national organisation is a poor fit for wrestling. What’s more, it is a failing model, open to manipulation from self-interested charlatans who don’t care about the sport or the athletes.

He wants no part of it, other than to be granted the right for his athletes to prove themselves on the mat.

“I don’t believe in the club game from day one,” he says. “Wrestling is an individual sport. You don’t need to do any club. These people have a not entirely correct understanding as to how it is functioning. They take some system and try to apply – it is like trying to service a jet engine with a combustion engine ideology. It won’t work.

“I can’t force anybody. We can only show example. We show example that we do the right thing – but after we show example people hate us. They start discriminating and abuse us. They say ‘you must be part of us’.

“No, no, maybe you must be part of us. I know what I am doing – I am an expert. If you want to be with us I am happy to provide my expertise.

“They say ‘No, you are in New Zealand and you must do as New Zealanders do. Go back to Russia if you don’t like it’."

THE NEW ZEALAND OLYMPIC WRESTLING UNION

Marlene Pouri-Lane doesn’t sound anything like the picture painted by the Korzhs when she answers the phone to LockerRoom on a Saturday morning.

She comes across as kind, patient and isn’t the least bit evasive. She admits belatedly sending Anastasiya Korzh her UWW licence and accepts that could have been seen as provocative – and can’t explain why she did it.

But ultimately, she says, she is simply following rules passed down by United World Wrestling.

“We have made it quite clear to Anastasiya that there are rules around entry into the world events and those are set by United World Wrestling.”

Korzh’s perception that the rules were arbitrarily enforced was understandable because she had successfully evaded them for a number of years, Pouri-Lane says.

“I can understand her saying that. She has always gone around New Zealand Wrestling. She actually doesn’t want to be part of New Zealand Wrestling, she’s made that quite clear.”

The reverse, Pouri-Lane insists, does not apply.

“We recognise that she is a great wrestler. We would be silly to try to cut her off. We want to promote wrestling in New Zealand so we just wouldn’t go down that track," she says.

“But she chooses not respond [to us] and that makes it a little bit hard.”

Pouri-Lane has no competitive background in the sport, instead being introduced to it by her husband Pete, who was a competitive wrestler when they met. The couple’s children have all competed, tasting both success and disappointment.

As her role is purely administrative, she doesn’t need to be an expert, she points out. And, importantly, like the rest of the NZOWU executive, she is a volunteer.

Her major focus since taking on the role of NZOWU president has been to bring the country’s clubs together under the NZOWU banner and introduce structures to help them self-govern more effectively. It hasn’t been easy.

“Everyone is a volunteer. Getting people to do things now is hard work in any sport.”

She wasn’t aware of the origins of the dispute with the Korzhs as it “started before my time”, and has been unsuccessful establishing any kind of working relationship with Dmitri.

“There has always been difficulty communicating with Dmitri – and him recognising that other people around New Zealand do understand wrestling and can coach wrestling. He believes he is the only person in New Zealand who can coach wrestling.”

Several years ago, she was instructed by UWW to suspend Dmitri – and it didn’t go well.

“When I rang him to talk it through, as far as he was concerned because I had never coached wrestling, I didn’t know what I was talking about. He doesn’t want to listen to anybody. That has been the problem that we’ve had," Pouri-Lane says.

“I am more than happy to work with him and I have said that to him. But he doesn’t want a bar of me because he doesn’t accept me. There is nothing I can change about that.”

While she says she would like Anastasiya Korzh to affiliate to NZOWU and would have no issue entering her in international tournaments if she did so, Pouri-Lane says she would not support Korzh’s entry into the upcoming world championships in Estonia.

“In all honestly we won’t have a spot for her because the three females who entered the Oceanias are all entering the world champs," she says.

She does not believe a compromise should be found that would allow Korzh to compete without affiliating to NZOWU.

“I would say no. I think it would be unfair if we had one rule for her and another for all our other participants.”

The likelihood of the Korzhs affiliating with NZOWU is not high, she admits.

“They just don’t want a part of it and I don’t know how we can rebuild it. I can’t undo the past. But what I can do is try to make [Anastasiya’s] future better for her, and better for Wrestling New Zealand.”

Korzh appears unlikely to accept that.

“They are abusing every right that I have,” she says. “A right to fair competing and not to be associated with any organisation. If I don’t want to, I don’t have to be associated with them. I don’t respect them as a governing body over me. The things that they do to athletes – no I am not keen on being friends with them.”

THE NEW ZEALAND OLYMPIC COMMITTEE

Anastasiya Korzh is not the first athlete to fall out with her sport’s national association, and she won’t be the last. Often, disputes are resolved with the help of bodies such as the NZOC or the Athletes Federation.

The collapse of the relationship between Rowing New Zealand and champion coach Dick Tonks is a recent high-profile example. Tonks and Rowing NZ were utterly unable to work together, however a way was found for single sculler Mahe Drysdale to garner more Olympic glory with Tonks pulling his strings.

That sort of resolution appears unlikely in this case, with NZOC responding to questions from LockerRoom that detail Korzh’s negative experiences at the hands of NZOWU by advising her to affiliate with NZOWU.

NZOC described NZOWU’s actions in withholding Korzh’s UWW licence, and then sending it to her belatedly, as “regrettable”.

And it noted that directing Korzh to travel to Nauru to wrestle nobody, simply to meet a criteria of having ‘competed’ in her continental championships, was “not a practical course of action”.

“Ordinarily, depending on whether it is an International Federation requirement or a National Federation requirement, the relevant federation could potentially look to waive the rule under an ‘extenuating circumstances’ provision,” the NZOC offered.

Of course, that didn’t happen in Korzh’s case – and nor has there been any suggestion from NZOWU or UWW that a waiver is an option.

With regards to NZOWU’s suggestion that Korzh join a wrestling club in Timaru, NZOC noted that “proximity is not a requirement” of membership.

“Many New Zealand athletes that live away from New Zealand (e.g. on US scholarships, or training bases in Australia) continue to maintain their membership of a National Federation.”

NZOC’s advice, then, amounts to suggesting Korzh bite the bullet, adhere to the technicality of registering with NZOWU and fight her battles from the inside.

As unpalatable as that may be to the Korzhs, it’s doubtful there is any other way.

“The New Zealand Olympic Committee believes that it is necessary for Anastasiya to fully engage with her National Federation and to become a member,” NZOC told LockerRoom.

“Membership of a National Federation applies to all athletes. It provides a basis for integrity, qualification, eligibility, administration and communication. This is why it is an obligation under the Olympic Charter for athletes participating in Olympic Games to be members of the National Federation which is itself a member of the International Federation recognised by the IOC.

“Integrity is critical. It is important to understand that without being a member of a National Federation, Anastasiya is not able to be tested by Drug Free Sport New Zealand in or out of competition, nor can any possible match-fixing violations be investigated.

“Eligibility to events is also managed and delivered via this wider sporting system within which the New Zealand Olympic Committee and international bodies such as the IFs, CGF and IOC operate.

“By not becoming a member of the National Federation, Anastasiya is compromising her rights to compete and rights to engage within judicial or other structures.

“We believe NZOWU has worked hard to communicate with Anastasiya and to create the correct pathway within the New Zealand and international sporting structures for her to represent New Zealand in wrestling.

“We recommend that Anastasiya become a member of her National Federation and in so doing, meet the integrity and other eligibility criteria required of all athletes.”

The message is clear: play by the rules or don’t play at all – at least as far as the Commonwealth and Olympic Games are concerned.

Dmitri Korzh has pretty much accepted that. He’s not bothered about the Commonwealth Games, as they aren’t an elite wrestling competition, and the Olympics are not a realistic goal for Anastasiya right now anyway.

But he views the world championships differently. There is no limitation on the number of competitors in any class and, he insists, no genuine eligibility requirement in terms of performance. If an athlete – any athlete – believes they are good enough, then they have the right to turn up and have a crack.

Until last year, that is precisely what Anastasiya Korzh had been doing.

UNITED WORLD WRESTLING

LockerRoom has submitted questions about UWW’s eligibility rules to its president Nenad Lalovic and vice president Natalia Yarigina. At the time of publication, we had not received a response.

In particular, LockerRoom asked about UWW’s continental championships eligibility rule. We asked whether it was always enforced – providing examples of times when it appeared not to have been – and whether it could be waived in cases such as that of Anastasiya Korzh.

We also asked UWW what measures it undertakes, if any, to foster Olympic-style wrestling in New Zealand.

This article will be updated if and when we get a response.

As it stands, UWW’s forthcoming world championships will feature not a single junior athlete from Oceania.

AN ATHLETE IN LIMBO

Anastasiya and Dmitri Korzh have been fighting recently. Dmitri tells LockerRoom he wants Anastasiya to fly to Estonia and force UWW officials to look her in the eye and tell her she can’t compete.

Having already done that in 2018, Anastasiya was initially reluctant. But when we speak on Thursday, she has changed her mind. She believes she has the backing of key UWW officials, and that she will be allowed to compete. She says UWW accept that the Oceania championships are illegitimate due to the lack of competitors. And that there is no requirement for her to affiliate with NZOWU.

She clearly isn’t one for giving up.

“When I go to Anastasiya and I say ‘Look, they will do same to you as they did to your mum and to Tayla, they break both of them. You have a choice – would you like to continue?'” says Dmitri.

“She says ‘You will never ask me again – I will go to the very end’. She is tougher than me. She was born in that environment and she grew up on the mat.”

But the endless struggle is taking its toll.

“I’ve talked to him about that, that maybe he needs to bite the bullet and toe the line,” says Lester. “But they go out of their way to f*** him off. And he is fed up. They are not making it easy for him and he is at breaking point.”

An email from Dmitri on July 9 confirms that.

“I feel like I falling apart, and it is take huge effort to pull myself together. But I know, there is not any other way, and I just need to keep going, even on empty tanks.”

LockerRoom is made possible by contributions from readers like you. Become a supporter to expand our in-depth coverage of women's sport in NZ.

Become a Supporter

Comments

Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: contact@newsroom.co.nz. Thank you.

PARTNERS