The memories surface in disjointed snippets: the flash of exploding bombs, the crack of gunfire and the heart-racing fear.
Arthur Biyarslanov was a preschooler when his family made a dash for the border, leaving war-ravaged Chechnya in southern Russia for neighbouring Azerbaijan. His mother gave money and her children’s legal documents to Chechen soldiers in case she couldn’t keep up. If she didn’t make it, at least they would have a better life.
“I do remember crossing the border and our soldiers were helping us,” says Biyarslanov, who will turn 20 later this month and is a rising star on the Canadian boxing scene.
“The soldiers were carrying me and running with me, taking us to a safe place. I was hearing bombs, shots. They asked me my name and I told them my name is Nohcho Borz, it means Chechen Wolf. You’re supposed to be scared of the wolf but my father told me you’re supposed to be like a wolf. So I was Nohcho Borz.”
Biyarslanov’s family left Azerbaijan and in 2005 made their way to Toronto, where Arthur remains the Chechen Wolf, the nickname he will carry into the ring this summer representing Canada as a podium possibility at the Pan Am Games.
Those Games, that have always seemed on the distant horizon, officially open 100 days from Wednesday — on July 10 — and close on July 26.
In the buildup to the Pan Ams and subsequent Parapans (Aug. 7 to 15), the headlines have been dominated by anticipated traffic headaches with organizers urging Torontonians to carpool and use transit to reduce the number of cars by 20 per cent.
Or concerns about lukewarm Pan Am ticket sales with just 350,000 of 1.4 million seats sold before sales were frozen until April 16.
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And, of course, questions about a budget — and the validity of that expense — that comes in at $2.6 billion, including security costs and more than $700 million for an athletes’ village that will become a Canary District neighbourhood post-games. Only a small percentage of the units will be for social housing.
Not every story has been negative. In a development that runs contrary to the narrative that Toronto doesn’t or won’t care, close to 60,000 people have stepped forward to fill 24,000 volunteer roles.
The Games also ensured that the Greater Golden Horseshoe, desperately underserved for its population, is gaining a legacy of 10 new sports venues, including a velodrome at Milton and an aquatic centre in Scarborough, and upgrades to others. Almost all those venues are finished and already in use by their communities.
If the 41-country, 51-sport Games evolve the way multi-sports events typically do, this Olympics-light and its connected cultural festival should create a positive summer vibe in the city, especially with the Canadian Pan Am team pushing for a top two finish and our Parapan team aiming for a top three. It could be quite the celebration as more than 7,500 athletes and an estimated 250,000 visitors descend on the city.
Often overlooked amidst the hand wringing and the drum beating, or at least not yet front of mind in the public consciousness, are the stories of those athletes — some remarkable, some inspirational.
One that is both belongs to Biyarslanov. The tale of a single mother who arrived in Canada with four children and little else. An older brother who put aside his own schooling and athletics to work, pay the bills and finance the dream. And a boxer so single-minded in his focus that he’ll often spend the day at the Atlas Boxing Club napping in the weight room between two-a-day workouts.
It is here in Toronto that the boxer found the better life, his safe place, for which his mother yearned. His family settled in a three-bedroom St. James Town apartment where Biyarslanov lives with his mother, brother, sister and niece. His father, a successful dentist, took ill and died from heart issues before the family emigrated.
“Canada is kind of like heaven,” says the teen, who carries himself with a maturity that belies his age. “I came from being all the way down to a place to where the door opened to so many opportunities. I’m just thankful for being here. I understand the freedom that is Canada.”
That is the message Biyarslanov hopes to deliver Wednesday when 100 new Canadians are sworn in as citizens during a ceremony at the athletes’ village, an event to mark the Pan Am 100-day countdown. He won’t make a speech but the boxer, who became a citizen in 2011, will mingle after the proceedings, answering questions and encouraging the newcomers to seize upon everything this country has to offer.
“Here you can achieve whatever your goal is, whatever you want to do,” he says. “Make use of the time you’re here. It’s life to live. It’s good.”
Good but not without challenges or sacrifice.
Like those of a lot of immigrants, Biyarslanov’s story is one of a family banding together to overcome challenges. In this case, they’ve thrown themselves behind the possibility that the Chechen Wolf will one day be an Olympic and world champion in the light-welterweight (64-kilogram) division.
Biyarslanov’s brother Rustam, 25, began earning a wage in construction and security — sometimes doing both in the same day — after high school to support the family and Arthur’s ambitions. Ella, the boys’ mother, is no longer able to work due to her own heart issues.
“Life pushes you forward sometimes. Not everything is easy,” says Rustam. “I was young, 12 or 13, when my father died. I grew up early. When I was 15, 16 years old, I was thinking like a 30-year-old man because I had to think that way.”
Rustam, taking on the patriarch role, makes sure his brother doesn’t drink or smoke, he watches who his friends are and he encourages him to keep his mind sharp too. Arthur studies psychology as a part-time student at York University.
It was also Rustam who also decided his little brother should try boxing. Arthur was already a soccer star with the East York organization but Rustam noticed during friendly wrestling matches how powerful the boy’s hands and arms were. Rustam himself boxed and thought his brother, with his strength and foot speed, could be a natural.
But Arthur would pretend to be sleeping when it was time to work out.
“I would always get beat up because boxing is not about who is the strongest, it’s more about technique,” he recounted. “I would get beat up by girls because they’d been boxing for a while. I’d feel so embarrassed, ashamed, I wouldn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to tell my brother that I didn’t want to go back because girls beat me up.”
While he loved soccer more, Arthur noticed working out in a boxing gym help calm the anger issues he once battled, feeling lost as he struggled to adapt to a new culture and language. When he started winning consistently, well, that changed everything. At 17, he gave up soccer for boxing.
Now at 19 — boxers peak in their mid- to late 20s — he is the best Canadian fighter in his weight class and possibly Canada’s best boxer period. He is hoping that strong showings at the Pan Ams and the Olympics will help him launch a pro career.
Biyarslanov hopes of one day helping his family financially but, he says, that doesn’t mean extra pressure.
“I could go to work right now if I wanted to but they say, ‘No, just box.’ Their goal is my goal. It makes me more motivated,” he says
But there is another debt he’d like to repay.
Canada hasn’t won an Olympic gold medal in boxing since Lennox Lewis stood atop the podium as a superheavyweight at Seoul in 1988. The lessons learned at the Pan Ams will be an important experience for Biyarslanov as he prepares for Rio.
“Canada gave me the opportunity to start something maybe I’d never been able to do back home. I’m very happy to be here and represent Canada all over the world,” he says. “It’s home to me and I want to give something back. I want to win a gold medal for Canada.”