Outside of his own country, no one doubts that Oleksander Usyk is Ukrainian. This is how all the media describe the new heavyweight boxing world champion.
By defeating Briton Anthony Joshua in London on September 26, Usyk won the WBA, WBO, IBF and IBO heavyweight titles just like Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko did years ago.
âThe belts are coming home,â Usyk said in a video posted to Instagram after the fight.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy applauded the victory on Facebook, saying: âUkraine has got back what is rightfully ours!
But, back home, the fight was not broadcast by any Ukrainian TV channel, which is very unusual for a fight of this magnitude. Those who wanted to see it live had to tune into Russian TV or pay TV. A controversy raged on social networks about the character of the new king of boxing. While some congratulated Usyk on his victory, others attacked him.
He must be one of the few, if not the only world boxing champion not to be universally congratulated at home but also to face the hostility of some particularly patriotic Ukrainians. The reason for this is the ambivalent statements Usyk has made in the past about Russia and annexed Crimea, his home region. The case is anything but decided.
Take the world heavyweight belts to Crimea
The Russian-speaking Usyk fought Joshua with boxing gloves with the name of his hometown, “Simferopol”, and “Ukraine” written on it. After the fight, he waved the Ukrainian blue and yellow flag in front of the cameras. But after returning to Kiev, Usyk fueled controversy when he announced that he wanted to bring the belts from the world championships to Crimea to show them to his coach. He plans to face Joshua in the rematch in Kiev in 2022.
Oleksander Usyk is happy to wrap himself in the Ukrainian flag after a win
Usyk, who moved from Simferopol to Kiev after 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, regularly visits the peninsula. He still trains there and calls Crimea home. For years he has been criticized in Ukraine for calling Russians and Ukrainians “one people” – just like Russian President Vladimir Putin does.
In addition, his ties to the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and his participation in a Russian film on Orthodoxy are a thorn in the side for some. And whenever a reporter asks him whether Crimea now belongs to Russia or Ukraine, he dodges the question.
It is also a fact that Usyk went to the front lines in eastern Ukraine and taught boxing to soldiers of the Ukrainian army. However, some fighters criticized him for his statements which they considered to be pro-Russian.
What to do with Ukrainians like Usyk?
Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov, who like Usyk is from Crimea, was imprisoned in Russia for years after annexation. He articulated the Ukrainian dilemma on Facebook: How should you treat prominent Ukrainians who do not view Russia as an âaggressorâ and maintain ties? Should you try to persuade them to move to Russia, or should you try to change their perspective?
Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov
In Russia, Usyk would likely be greeted with open arms. Prominent TV host Vladimir Soloviev touted Usyk as “the greatest”. A well-known singer suggested inviting Usyk to Russia and supporting him financially.
Sentsov described Usyk’s remarks as “Putin’s propaganda stamps”, but suggested “not to push him away but to explain what it means to feel Ukrainian and why it cannot coexist with the” world. Russian “”, a vision of a cross-border Russian community propagated by Moscow. It would take time and “help from those who had already grasped their identity,” Sentsov said.
Iryna Medushevska from Odessa is one of the few influential pro-Ukrainian bloggers to have publicly expressed her joy at Usyk’s victory. As a result, she lost around 100 of her over 40,000 subscribers, the blogger told DW.
“Sentsov is right in this case. With citizens like Usyk, whose ties to Russia include the Orthodox Church,” Ukraine will require a lot of patience, Medushevska said: “It is a very long process, it is is a member of the church. ”
High jumpers Mariya Lasitskene (left) from Russia and Yaroslava Mahuchikh (right) from Russia
This is far from the first time that sport and politics have been hotly debated in Ukraine. After winning bronze at the Tokyo Olympics last August, high jumper Yaroslava Mahuchikh was criticized for having her photo taken with the Russian gold medalist. Both carried flags – those of Ukraine and the Russian Olympic Committee. After returning home, Mahuchikh was called to the mat by a deputy defense minister.
German publicist Christoph Brumme, who lives in Ukraine, told DW he understood both the criticisms of Usyk and Mahuchikh and the expression of “spontaneous joy in Tokyo”. He thinks both sides need to “calm down” and go beyond “thinking politics in black and white terms.”
“Usyk is fighting for Ukraine to improve its image – that’s the main thing,” Brumme said. Those who “still cannot tell friend from foe” after seven years of war are to be pitied. According to Brumme, we should also be able to have reasonable discussions “with such people”.