Amid the cut and thrust of the sporting competition in Sochi, Kazakhstan's Olympic officials have been busy schmoozing to build support for Almaty’s bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
The Kazakh Olympic Committee has opened a hospitality center in the heart of Sochi’s Olympic Park, offering visitors the chance to try delicacies such as kazy (dried horsemeat sausage), karta (made from the animal’s large intestine) and kurt (a dried curd snack), and watch some video presentations detailing Almaty's bid.
One notable visitor was Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, who told Kazinform he is confident Almaty is a strong contender and praised Kazakhstan's athletes—although they have not performed as well as some expected, with figure skater Denis Ten's bronze thus far Kazakhstan's only medal.
Kazakhs officials played down fears of excessive costs after spending on Sochi 2014 broke record after record. “It will not be a big budget,” Andrey Kryukov, an executive board member of the Kazakh Olympic Committee told reporters in Sochi on February 20, eager to demonstrate Kazakhstan’s frugality, which Sochi has made fashionable.
Early estimates from Kazakhstan's Olympic Committee put the costs of hosting the 2022 Games at around $5 billion, a modest sum compared with Sochi 2014, which President Vladimir Putin pitched at $12 billion but ended up costing an embarrassing $51 billion—the most expensive Olympics in history and more expensive than all previous Winter Games combined.
Tashkent is maintaining a stony silence over the fate of wrestler Soslan Tigiev. This week, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped the Uzbek of his Olympic bronze medal after he tested positive for a banned substance. Thus far, official media outlets in Uzbekistan have failed to cover the story.
Private media outlets, including olam.uz and gazeta.uz, have carried the IOC press release detailing the facts, but have refrained from making any comment. While these outlets are privately owned, they toe the official government line when it comes to reporting. Uzbek government mouthpiece Narodnoye Slovo and the Foreign Ministry's information agency, Jahon, have studiously ignored any reference to the embarrassing case.
Tigiev took bronze in London this summer in 74kg freestyle wrestling, adding to the silver he won in Beijing in 2008. The IOC reported on November 7 that it was stripping Tigiev of the London medal after he tested positive for the prohibited substance methylhexaneamine in an August 10 urine sample. The IOC asked for the immediate return of his medal, diploma and medallist pin.
Since July, Astana and Beijing have engaged in an emotional rivalry over Olympic gold medalist Zulfiya Chinshanlo. During the London games, Chinese media were adamant that the weightlifter was about to return to the People’s Republic, claiming that Chinshanlo was born Zhao Changling in a remote mountainous area of Hunan Province and had been loaned to Kazakhstan in 2008 for a five-year period.
But Chinshanlo told Kazakh press after earning Kazakhstan a gold that she was committed to the Central Asian republic. Moreover, Chinshanlo’s biography on the official Web page for the 2012 Olympic Games lists her birthplace as Almaty. (Others report she was born in Kyrgyzstan.)
Now Chinese media have quoted her saying she’s returning to China.
China Radio International's English website reported on October 24 that the champion weightlifter was spotted in Hunan applying for papers to return to China.
She had a different story to tell Kazakh media, however, claiming on October 26 she was merely paying a visit to her former coach in Yongzhou, Hunan, where a Caravan.kz article says she took up weightlifting as an 11-year-old.
With the dust now settling on the London Olympics, Kazakhstan has emerged as the undisputed Central Asia champion, finishing a laudable 12th in the overall medal table, up from 29th four years ago in Beijing. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan also made it to the winner’s podium.
But besides the considerable costs of training and putting athletes forward for Olympic glory, what have the wins cost Central Asia’s thin pocketbooks? Leaders across the region promised more than fame to athletes who could score a medal in London, including cash prizes, apartments and luxury cars.
In Kazakhstan’s case, the cash prizes to be doled out total over $2 million – $250,000 for each of seven golds, $150,000 for one silver, and $75,000 for each of five bronzes. Uzbekistan will fork out $100,000 to its gold winner, 120-kilogram freestyle wrestler Artur Taymazov, and $50,000 to each of three bronze winners. It’s not clear what Tajikistan was offering its bronze winner, however. President Emomali Rakhmon set the prize for gold at $63,000. But the Dushanbe mayor and the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party each promised female boxer Mavzuna Chorieva – who won a bronze – an apartment.
Team Kazakhstan hasn’t bothered with anything but gold at the London Olympics, doubling its haul of first-place medals over the weekend to place fifth in number of gold medals per capita.
Former husband-and-wife team Ilya Ilin and Svetlana Podobedova triumphed in the weightlifting arena. Ilin set a new world record when he hefted 418 kilograms, a 12-kilo improvement on his gold-winning lift in Beijing in 2008. The two-time Olympic champion attributed his success to the supplies of kazy – smoked horsemeat sausage – that Kazakhstan brought to London.
Podobedova triumphed in the 75-kilogram division for her adopted country. She left her native Russia in 2007 after she was cut from the national weightlifting team for a doping offense. The Russian authorities refused to allow her to compete for Kazakhstan in the 2008 games, but now she has gotten revenge by narrowly beating Russia's Natalya Zabolotnaya to take the gold.
The London Olympics have offered mixed successes for Central Asia in their first week.
Kazakhstan got off to a great start, meeting its target of three gold medals in the first four days of competition. Uzbekistan has picked up a bronze and also the dubious distinction of seeing a gymnast kicked out for failing a drug test. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have yet to trouble the winner's podium.
Kazakhstan's weightlifting sensations Zulfiya Chinshanlo and Maiya Maneza struck gold on July 29 and July 31, after cyclist Alexander Vinokourov sped to victory on July 28.
The victories were not without controversy, however. Chinshanlo and Maneza's roots were called into question, as some years previously they had been part of China's weightlifting set-up. A Kazakh official refuted charges the athletes had no right to represent Kazakhstan.
“We led them to this victory for a whole Olympic cycle, and before that they were already members of our national team,” Aleksey Kryuchkov, acting head of the sporting body in charge of Kazakhstan's national teams, told KTK television.
It's been a busy games for Kryuchkov, who also had a kit malfunction to deal with. Some weightlifters from Kazakhstan were shown in competition wearing uniforms reading “Kzakhstan.” An investigation revealed five or six rogue, misspelled T-shirts.
Kazakhstan's gold medalist "Zulfiya Chinshanlo" training in July 2011.
When photographer Ikuru Kuwajima and I visited Kazakhstan's Olympic weightlifting training camp in July 2011, it was difficult to get much out of Zulfiya Chinshanlo, the 19-year-old weightlifter who on July 29 brought Kazakhstan its second gold at the London games.
Neither Chinshanlo, nor her friend Maiya Maneza, could manage more than a few fragments of Russian. And they spoke no Kazakh.
"They’re Dungans [...] from Bishkek," said Kazakhstan's trainer Alexey Ni, as they stood shyly together in one corner of the gym, giggling like the teenage girls that they still are, despite their bulging muscles. "They’re very hard-working. There are only a few Dungan people, not so many."
The Dungans, a Chinese people speaking a language related to Mandarin, are Muslim converts who fled to Central Asia in the 19th Century.
For Kazakhstan to include two of them on its Olympic team demonstrated exemplary inclusiveness.
Only Ni’s story is now being challenged.
According to a report in China's state-run Xinhua news agency (and picked up by CNN) Chinshanlo was in fact born and raised in Yongzhou, Hunan Province under the Chinese name Zhao Changling, and transferred to Kazakhstan legally in 2008.
According to Xinhua, a Kazakh journalist in London also claimed Dungan descent for Chinshanlo. But officials from the Hunan Province Sports Bureau insist that she is in fact Chinese.
Kazakhstan’s sportsmen are leaving nothing to chance before the Olympic Games open later this month in London. They will power themselves with horsemeat sausages shipped specially to the British capital for the occasion.
Prized kazy (dried horsemeat sausage) and karta (a delicacy made from the animal’s large intestine) will be taken to London to add a taste of home to the diet of the Kazakh team, a government sports official told the Vesti.kz news site.
Visitors to Britain often complain about the food, but Yelsiyar Kanagatov, deputy head of the government’s Agency for Sport and Physical Training, said the decision to fatten up sportsmen with homegrown specialties was not a reflection of the gastronomic delights on offer at London’s Olympic Village, where “whatever you want” will be available. It’s just that Kazakhstan’s sportsmen will have something “extra,” as he put it, to help them reach peak fitness. That means not only the horsemeat delicacies that are staples in every Kazakh's diet, but also a taste of luxury: Caspian Sea caviar.
Kazakhstan is fielding 114 athletes in this year’s Summer Olympics and has set an ambitious but achievable target of bringing home three gold medals.