Imperious khans and assorted dignitaries gaze into the distance. Meanwhile, fierce battles are raging all around. These are scenes from artworks at a recently opened exhibition in Kazakhstan, representing a reimagining of key events in the nation’s history.
Kazakhstan is patting itself on the back after a successful conclusion to the Universiade 2017 winter student games in Almaty.
“Universiade 2017 has proved to be a true festival of sport for all Kazakhstanis,” President Nursultan Nazarbayev said in a statement posted on his official website.
The games culminated with a boisterous closing ceremony which saw athletes parading through the 12,000-capacity Almaty Arena to a soundtrack of pulsating Kazakh music provided by the group Ulytau, 150 drummers and other stars from Kazakhstan.
“The 28th Winter Universiade has taken place at a high level, despite the modest budget input,” Prime Minister Bakhytzhan Sagintayev told the crowd at the closing ceremony.
“Over a billion viewers followed the Universiade. We have seen how sports, health and culture facilities, that are going to function for the good of our country's inhabitants, were erected in a short time. We are proud of our victories and we thank you all,” he said.
Nazarbayev offered further congratulations to Kazakhstan’s athletes on finishing second on the medal table with 11 golds, 8 silvers and 17 bronzes, behind only Russia who scooped up more than one-third of the gold medals on offer.
Kazakhstan made the front pages of international newspapers last month when it hosted the first round of Syria peace talks. The diplomatic initiative is kicking off a year that will see a major PR push to portray Kazakhstan as a global player.
Kazakhstan’s medal haul from the 2012 London Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Olympics has been further depleted as four more athletes were stripped of their medals after failing doping tests following a second round of testing.
Weightlifters Irina Nekrasova, a Beijing silver medallist, and bronze medallists Maria Grabovetskaya and Maiya Maneza along with wrestler Asset Mambetov, were stripped of their medals by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on 17 November after testing positive for banned substances.
Maneza already lost her gold medal from the London games on October 27, as did her fellow weightlifters Zulfiya Chinshanlo and Svetlana Podobedova. Wrestler Taimuraz Tigiyev was stripped of his silver medal from Beijing on October 26, bringing the total of medals reclaimed from Kazakhstan to eight.
All these athletes failed retests of samples given at the time. Earlier this year, the IOC began a comprehensive campaign of reanalysing samples, using the latest analytical methods, to try and keep this year’s games in Rio clean.
Grabovetskaya took to the press in Kazakhstan to proclaim her innocence, claiming in an interview with vesti.kz that she had not taken any illegal substances prior to the games, only painkillers.
“We were clean,” she said, referring to the rigorous testing the athletes underwent prior to the games. “We gave all to the [weightlifting] bar. And now I don’t understand it, when we’re asked to return the medal.”
Kyrgyzstan’s only medal winner thus far at the Rio Olympics, weightlifter Izzat Artykov, has been stripped of his bronze medal after testing positive for strychnine.
Artykov, who won bronze in the 69-kilogram category, became the first athlete to be excluded from these Olympics for doping after he tested positive for strychnine, a banned performance enhancer more commonly used to kill pesky rodents.
Strange though it may seem, strychnine has history in the Olympics. Way back in 1904, Thomas Hicks won the marathon after receiving a reviving mix of strychnine and egg whites washed down with a hefty measure of brandy after he started to falter on his way to the finish line. At the time, strychnine was in common use as a stimulant.
It’s not clear what reception Artykov will get on returning home, but he shouldn’t expect any sympathy from Kanat Amankulov, director of Kyrgyzstan’s State Agency for Youth, Physical Culture and Sport, who publicly upbraided wrestler Aisuluu Tynybekova after she narrowly missed out on a bronze medal.
In other Olympics news concerning Central Asia, Kazakhstani boxer Vasily Levit, who controversially lost out on a gold medal to Russia’s Evgeny Tischchenko, is to receive the reward for a gold medal finish from Astana — a cool $250,000.
Kazakhstan’s troubled weightlifters finally struck gold in Rio, with a little help from Azerbaijan.
Weightlifter Nijat Rahimov, who formerly competed for his native Azerbaijan, set a new world record as he won Kazakhstan’s second gold medal of these Olympics. Earlier in the day, Dmitriy Balandin won gold in the pool in the 200-meter breaststroke.
Rahimov’s win was not without controversy. He recently returned to the sport after serving a two-year ban after failing a doping test at Universiade, the World Student Games, in 2013. At the time, he was representing Azerbaijan, but he made the switch to Kazakhstan in 2015.
It turned out to be a good choice for the 77 kilogram-class weightlifter. In June, Azerbaijan was banned from competing in these Olympics because of repeated doping test failures.
Kazakhstan itself narrowly escaped a ban from competing in Rio. Ahead of the Games, Kazakhstan’s weightlifters were rocked by a series of doping scandals that saw four gold medal winners from London 2012, including double Olympic champion Ilya Ilyin, banned from competing in Rio. Unfazed by his recent brush with notoriety, Ilyin was reportedly headed to Rio on August 11 so that, as he put it, he could “support our team.”
Rahimov attributed his success to his rigorous training schedule, as he dodged questions about his doping past in the post-event press conference.
“When normal people were asleep, we were training. When the snow was deep, you know how it is in Kazakhstan, we went out for training at 11 or 12 [at night],” Rahimov said.
With tempers fraying over the vexed issue of land in Kazakhstan, some prime plots in Almaty are to be leased to a local consortium with the aim of reviving the fortunes of the city’s iconic Aport apple.
The Agriculture Department of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, has allotted 400,000 square meters of agricultural land on the outskirts of the city to a group of Kazakhstani investors trading as Apple World, reports state news agency Kazinform.
The group hopes to cultivate the Aport apple, which once grew abundantly in the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau mountain range, on a patch of land that was home to an orchard in the 1940s. The fortunes of the Aport have suffered from encroaching development as Almaty has expanded its borders into the surrounding countryside in recent decades, destroying swaths of both cultivated and wild orchards.
This move represents a homecoming as apples are believed to have originated from these forests in the Trans-Ili Alatau’s foothills. Almaty’s name is derived from the Kazakh for apple, alma, and it translates as “place of apples.” The Aport, which has become a symbol of the city, is a large, red species of apple that can grow up to one kilogram in weight.
Good news for hikers and bikers in Kazakhstan’s business hub as a local beverage company plans to build 25 kilometers of foot and cycle paths into the hills to mark its 25th anniversary.
Kazakhstan’s Raimbek Bottlers, which markets its drinks range under the Juicy, Palma and Ainalaiyn brands, is stumping the cash to build car-free access to the most popular out-of-town getaway spots. Once the path is completed, people will be able to get to the Medeu ice skating rink and Shymbulak ski resort from Kok-Tobe, a hilltop recreation area in Almaty, under their own steam.
“We want to give these paths to the city so that you don’t have to go by transport to Medeu or Shymbulak, but, for example, you can go on foot up to Kok-Tobe and then use the paths. Part of the path will be for trekking and the other for mountain bikes,” Raimbek Batalov, chairman of Raimbek Holdings, told Kapital.kz.
Kazakhstan has on paper been making bold efforts to nudge their automobile-addicted population onto their bicycles by building dedicated paths (albeit not always very good ones). And there is health to consider. Almaty is plagued by appallingly polluted air because over-reliance on cars, which also seems to be contributing to a burgeoning obesity crisis. Research by the Kazakh Academy of Nutrition has found that 30.6 percent of women and 36.8 percent of men in Kazakhstan are overweight.
So Batalov’s cycle and trekking path could not have come at a more apposite time.
City hall in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s commercial hub, is leading by example as it attempts to convert the city’s petrol-heads to eco-friendly bicycles.
Timur Bazarbaev, a besuited city hall official, took to two wheels for Almaty TV’s cameras on April 4, following Mayor Baurzhan Baybek’s call to officials in February to leave their cars at home and get on their bicycles to set an example for the good citizens of Almaty.
Bazarbaev recently started cycling to work after being inspired by his colleagues and getting fed up of sitting in Almaty’s notorious traffic jams.
“It’s a little bit hard,” he admitted to Almaty TV. “Our terrain is mountainous with many ups and downs, but overall I believe that it’s convenient, effective and useful.”
Cycling is increasing in popularity in Almaty, but the car still accounts for the majority of commutes.
In recent years, attempts have been made to unclog the city’s main thoroughfares by encouraging more journeys by bicycle. Since 2010 more than 30 kilometers of dedicated bicycle lanes have been laid in the city and Almaty has even introduced a bike share scheme similar to London’s Boris bikes.
In a bid to encourage more pedal power, on April 10 Almaty’s main streets will be turned over to cyclists with a mass cycle ride planned.