Ilman Mukhtarov, wrestling: “Giving something back to France for everything it has given me.”

Thursday, 7 march 2024

Ilman Mukhtarov is aiming to qualify for the next Olympic Qualification Tournament (OQT) in Baku for the Olympic Games Paris 2024, which, if he succeeds, would have immense symbolic value for this athlete who is pursuing his exceptional destiny with the support of the Caisse d’Epargne de Bourgogne Franche-Comté.

You grew up in Dagestan in the Caucasus. Can you tell us about your family background? 

My family is Chechen in origin but we lived in Dagestan in the Caucasus, so it’s as if I were someone from the Franche-Comté living in Dijon (or someone from Pennsylvania in the US living in New York, or from Yorkshire in England living in Manchester). We came to France in 2001. My parents left their family, friends and land to offer their children a better future. My brother came first and I followed later with my father, hidden with the luggage in a bus. I was four years old at the time. We travelled through Russia, Belarus and Germany before arriving in Strasbourg. My uncle, who had arrived in France earlier during the war in Chechnya, let us stay with him for three months in his social housing unit in Salon-de-Provence not far from Marseille. We then moved west to Perpignan, where we received support from associations helping refugees. We changed hotels every day, eating in the homes of people who were willing to take us in… Then we lived in a decommissioned hospital with other foreign families: Ukrainians, Africans… The place was run by a man called Philippe, a person I’ll never forget. I was given a stuffed toy that sang the French alphabet, and that’s how I learned it. We then moved to a small village in the Pyrénées Orientales in southwest France, next to Andorra and Spain. We lived five to a room, with Turks, Albanians, refugees from the former Yugoslavia… it was like a community. There was also Jacqueline, a lady I met again 15 years later, who ran the center. She helped us a lot. In 2003, we joined my uncle in Besançon in eastern France near Switzerland, where he’d found a job with Alstom, the rolling stock manufacturer… There, we lived in a center with other refugee families but also…with  drug addicts. Then, a year later, we got our own accommodation in a social housing unit. Everyone had their own room, it was like a palace… Unimaginable! My father didn’t want to live on handouts, so he found a job as a warehouse handler at SNTB, where he’s been working since 2003, and my mother works in the kitchen of Besançon hospital.  

How did wrestling become a part of your life?  

In the Caucasus, and especially among the Chechens and in Dagestan, wrestling is the national sport. So, in Besançon, my father naturally looked for a wrestling club. That’s how we ended up at the Club Pugilistique Bisontin fighting club… The adventure began there and I’ve remained loyal to the club from that moment on. Since then, I’ve had a lot of very lucrative offers, but I prefer to stay loyal to the club that gave me everything and made me what I am today. It was my coach who got me this far, and the club also helped us financially and enabled me to study sport… Recognition is more important than money. 

In the Caucasus, people practice freestyle wrestling…. 

In fact, there are two kinds of wrestling: freestyle wrestling, in which you can attack any part of your opponent’s body, and Greco-Roman wrestling. The Club Pugilistique Bisontin specializes in the latter, where everything happens above the belt. But I was lucky enough to find a very intelligent coach who was also a great teacher. Because Greco-Roman wrestling was out of the question for my father, he wanted us to do freestyle. So Stéphane Lamy, my first coach and a Greco-Roman specialist, spent a lot of time watching freestyle wrestling videos, worked on them and taught us freestyle technique. And it worked really well, because in my very first year, I was French Greco-Roman champion of the minimes age category (aged 13/14), and then French Freestyle champion of the cadets age category (15/16) before joining the French national team, where I’ve been ever since.  

What did it mean to you to become a member of the French national team? 

It meant everything. First of all, it was a form of recognition for my parents, a way of telling them that you didn’t sacrifice everything to come to France for nothing. It would have been horrible for them if their children had turned out to be delinquents! My brothers and I really wanted their sacrifices to be rewarded, to ensure that what they’d done hadn’t been in vain… And then, I was driven by the desire to give something back to France for what it has given me, which is everything! I always carry the colors of the French flag with me. 

You still seem amazed at what has happened to you, despite all these years… 

The simple fact of being at the INSEP National Institute of Sport is something I find absolutely ‘insane.’ People tell me it’s normal, that I’ve earned it. But it’s an incredible life, I’m given three meals a day just to do sport. Sometimes I’m ashamed when I see students who only eat once a day… Thanks to sport, I’m able to travel. I’ve been to Japan, Cuba… me, the same person who crossed national borders hiding under a bus seat… Every single thing in this life I’m leading means so much to me, it’s not something ‘natural.’  

In the run-up to the Olympic Games Paris 2024, you’ve embarked on an insane sporting gamble, dropping down two weight categories… 

Last summer, I was recovering from an operation on my cruciate ligaments. I was at the INSEP, where there are usually 800 athletes, but it was the summer vacation and there were only ten of us, and there were no wrestlers. I was depressed. I lost weight. That’s when I came up with the idea of wrestling in the Olympics in the under 57 kilo category, which in France is less competitive than the under 66 kilo category, where I was number one. I like challenges and this was a big one, losing 13 kilos and remaining competitive. The physiotherapist and the surgeon told me I was crazy.  

But, in the end, I managed to do it.  

How did you do it?  

Until I made this decision, I hadn’t wanted to hear about dietetics. But this time, I realized that I needed to be accompanied by a professional. I’m not stubborn, I’m not ashamed to ask for help, but I didn’t want a scientific explanation, so I told the dietitian: “Imagine you’re talking to a child and explain why I have to eat such and such a thing at such and such a time and what are the negative effects of such and such other food that I like.” I wanted to understand what I’d be doing, and understand myself… I can change my habits if I understand why. And it worked well. I already lost four kilos just by adopting healthy eating habits. Then I switched to two meals a day, with intermittent fasting.  

And what about today? 

My body weight, which used to be 69 kilos, has now dropped to 62 kilos. And when I come away from training, I weigh 60. So losing three kilos for the competition is nothing, I shed weight easily… I’ve lost a little strength, however… I used to be able to lift 100 kilos doing a bench press, whereas now I’m struggling with 70 kilos. But I haven’t lost any power in wrestling, and I’m still able to wrestle with my 66-kilo friends. 

What do you like about wrestling? 

You have to be as flexible as a gymnast, as strong as a weightlifter, as fast as a sprinter, and as tactical as a chess player. It’s the only combat sport that anyone can do without really having learned. Children naturally wrestle together when they squabble. 

What do the Olympic Games Paris 2024 represent in your career? 

Life won’t come to an end in 2024. But France has given me so much, it would be an honor to give something back in return.  

Which champion do you most admire? 

When I was growing up, I most admired Chechen wrestling champions but, today, I like to see how great champions like Zidane or Cristiano Ronaldo see their sport.  

What do you think about when you doubt yourself? 

My parents are my principal source of inspiration. I just grit my teeth and refuse to give up because of them, because of what they’ve done for their children. I thought I was a warrior because I get up at 6am… but the people who are truly indomitable are people like my father or my mother who get up at dawn to start work… I sometimes suffer from impostor syndrome! 

What’s your strong point? 

Discipline and steely resolve.  

If you had to single out one value in sport that you hold dear?  

Respect. Respect for coaches, your opponents, your partners, for yourself, for the referees, for the rules, and self-discipline.  

Do you have another passion? 

I’ve discovered a passion for watches. I’m starting to build up a small collection. 

And what does the support of your partner, the Caisse d’Epargne de Bourgogne Franche-Comté, mean to you? 

I couldn’t believe it when I was contacted by the Caisse d’Epargne de Bourgogne Franche-Comté. They’re always there for me… People tell me: “They’re your sponsor, it’s natural and only to be expected,” but, no, it’s not natural: I have friends who get up at 6am, and go to bed at 10pm and work for people they don’t like whereas I’m given money to pursue my passion. At first, I thought they were just going to give me money and nothing more. But it’s much more than that. The financial support already gives me peace of mind when I’m training. Unlike some of my friends, I don’t have to think about how I’m going to pay for my train fare home, how I’m going to pay for my phone, and I don’t have to go to work after training. It gives me a certain mental serenity. And the Caisse d’Épargne Bourgogne Franche-Comté isn’t just a company. I’ve got to know Michel and Pierre. We talk about things and they’re not just partners but also friends, they’re family… I can see that people are real in their behavior with me. And they’ve helped me to put my accounts on a stable footing. They’ve given me peace of mind, which is a real luxury.”