Is Sambo an Olympic Sport?

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sambo match

Sambo becomes more and more popular due to the success of some sambo fighters in MMA. Since you read this article I’m assuming you want to learn more about sambo; the history of the sport and is it an Olympic sport? The last is what we’re going to discuss today.

Is sambo an Olympic sport? No, sambo isn’t recognized as an Olympic sport so far. There was a point where Sambo was almost accepted in the Olympics but that didn’t happen due to politics.

Still to this day, sambo is very popular in Russia and other former socialistic countries in eastern Europe and Asia. But since it wasn’t an Olympic sport many sambo competitors competed also in judo and wrestling due to the similar rules/techniques of those sports and because that was their only chance to participate in the Olympic games.

Below in this article, I talk about why exactly sambo wasn’t recognized as Olympic sport although it’s so popular is there a chance to be recognized soo and which style of sambo has the best chance to become part of the Olympic roster.

Why Sambo isn’t an Olympic Sport?

Sambo comes from the USSR and it’s an acronym of (in translation) “self-defense without weapons”. It was created initially for the USSR soldiers, to give them better training in hand to hand combat.

It quickly increased its popularity and in 1938 was recognized as an official sport in USSR. In 1980 it took part in the Olympic games in Moscow but only as a demonstration sport – that was a thing before in the Olympics where there’s a sport played just to promote it; not a real Olympic sport.

Later it was excluded from the Olympic games even as a demonstration sport. As I mentioned before the reason for that was politics. The conflicts during the Cold War reflected on the Olympic games as we saw during the Olympic boycott in Moscow in 1980.

Since sambo is associated with the USSR, western countries weren’t willing to include it in the Olympics at that time.

Politics and the lack of popularity in countries other than the USSR and former socialistic countries are the reasons why sambo isn’t an Olympic sport even to this day.

Is there a chance Sambo to be recognized as an Olympic sport any time soon?

In the early, to mid-2000s Sambo was represented in MMA by Fedor Emelianenko (3 times world Sambo champion) who become one of the most popular MMA figures in the world. He’s considered by many to be the greatest MMA fighter who ever competed.

Recently the UFC Khabib Nurmagomedov who has a background in Sambo popularised the sport even more (because MMA is much more mainstream sport now than it was before). Khabib who is a UFC lightweight champion is considered to be the greatest lightweight fighter of all time and even one of the greatest pound for pound UFC fighters of all time.

Those two fighters any many more proved than sambo can be very effective in MMA. You may think that this would be enough for the Olympic committee to recognize Sambo as an Olympic sport. But unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Today, the tension between the western countries and Russia is much lower than before. But still, even though FIAS (Federation International Amateur Sambo) sent an application to the Olympics committee asking them to consider Sambo for the Olympic games in Tokyo 2020 Sambo they refused.

At this point, I think the reason Sambo isn’t in the Olympics has something to do with the direction the Olympic committee wants the Olympic games to go. They already have 3 wrestling sports:

  1. Freestyle wrestling
  2. Greco-Roman Wrestling (it’s like the Freestyle but you are not allowed to touch the legs of the opponent or to trip his legs)
  3. Judo (it’s basically freestyle wrestling with judo gi on)

And they don’t want one more similar sport. In 2013 there had to be some big changes in the rules of Judo in order to secure the future of the sport in the Olympics. Some people from the Olympics even proposed removal of Freestyle wrestling.

Sambo has something to offer different than those 3 sports but the actions of the Olympic committee towards sports similar to Sambo hint that they aren’t going to recognize Sambo as Olympic sport any time soon.

Types of Sambo and the Olympics

There are two different types of Sambo. Combat Sambo and Sport Sambo.

Sport Sambo is very similar to catch wrestling and judo. Strikes aren’t allowed, but there are leg locks and other submissions (other than chokeholds, they aren’t allowed).

Combat Sambo is different though. In Combat Sambo, you can punch, kick, throw elbows and knees. That’s actually the closest sport to the modern MMA. The only difference from MMA is that the competitors wear jackets and sometimes headgear and shinguards. In terms of rules, combat sambo and amateur MMA is the same thing, excluding the jackets and the fact that there is no cage in sambo.

When it comes to the Olympics sport Sambo may a better chance of becoming an Olympic sport because is less brutal than Combat Sambo. But the problem is that it’s very similar to Judo. There are some minor differences, for example, leg locks aren’t allowed in Judo and chokeholds aren’t allowed in Sport Sambo as I mentioned before. And as we already found out, the Olympic committee doesn’t want more similar sports.

On the other hand Sport Sambo is Judo with leglocks allowed plus striking. But that doesn’t mean it will be recognized anytime soon. That’s because Sport Sambo is basically amateur MMA. And even though today MMA is a mainstream sport, it’s still not accepted by everybody. It wasn’t until 2016 before MMA was legalized in New York.

So I think there’s still a long way to go for sports like Combat Sambo and MMA to be recognized as Olympic sports.

Sambo outside Russia

Unexpectedly Sambo is quite popular in the USA. The American Sambo Association (ASA) often organizes sambo tournaments in Canada and the USA.

In my opinion people like sambo hey do sambo because of the wide variety of techniques that can be used. It combines wrestling and jiu-jitsu (and striking if you practice combat sambo). And the transition from Judo/Freestyle wrestling to Sambo isn’t that hard.


There are were some political, popularity issues and issues with the Olympic committee that didn’t allow the sport to be considered for the Olympic games.

But the fact that the sport grows rapidly in popularity shows that it’s only a matter of time for that to happen.

There are more and more MMA fighters with a Sambo background who dominates the octagon. Especially sambo guys from Dagestan like Khabib Nurmagomedov and Islam Makhachev. Better keep an eye on them if you want to see how effective sambo can be combined with a good striking game and jiu-jitsu.

Dimitar Ivanov

Just a hardcore MMA fan and practitioner who wants to share some info with the world.