Sport -- it's good for your health. It also has the power to, however briefly, bind a nation together during those times when the national team is competing internationally. No matter where people are on the political spectrum, or if they are entirely apolitical, when their country’s athletes are competing at an event such as the Olympic Games, the eyes of the nation truly are upon these athletes and the hopes of the country are focused for a few minutes on “their” men or women.
Central Asia, overall, did surprisingly well in these recent summer games in Rio de Janeiro. The Olympic Games are a big deal in Central Asia. It’s partly due to their Soviet past and the emphasis the U.S.S.R. placed on its athletes competing internationally. But the five Central Asian countries really view the Olympic Games as the pinnacle, the world’s greatest sports competition. Many will remember Kazakhstan was bidding to host the 2022 Olympics, but few would remember in Tashkent, in 1992, before Uzbekistan marked one whole year of independence, a common plastic shopping bag one was likely to receive in stores and bazaars advertised “Tashkent Summer Olympic Games 2000.”
I wish I had kept one of those.
To look at how the teams from Central Asia did in these recent Olympic Games in Rio, the unexpected victories, the disappointments, the different approaches the countries take toward grooming athletes, and get an idea of why an Olympic medal means so much to a country, RFE/RL gathered a Majlis, a panel, to discuss Rio 2016.
Moderating the talk was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, Ruslan Medelbek participated. Medelbek covered the Olympic Games in Rio for Azattyq. Another member of Azattyq, Galym Bokash, participated from Prague where he was coordinating Azattyq’s Olympic coverage. And from Bishkek, political analyst, Kyrgyz sports fan, and one of the organizers of Kyrgyzstan’s Olympic team in Atlanta in 1996, Edil Baisalov, joined in the discussion. And me, I was away this time.
Medelbek summed up the results for Central Asian states in Rio. “Four golds for Uzbekistan, three golds for Kazakhstan, and one gold for Tajikistan. It’s the first-ever gold for Tajikistan.”
According to a point tally, Uzbekistan placed 21st overall in the Rio Olympics taking, besides the four gold medals, two silver, and seven bronze medals. Kazakhstan came right behind in 22nd, taking, besides the three gold medals, five silver, and nine bronze medals.
Tajikistan’s lone gold medal, won by Dilshod Nazarov in the men’s hammer throw, put the country in 54th place in the Rio games. More importantly, it was a welcome distraction for the people in Central Asia’s poorest country.
Kyrgyzstan’s Izzat Artykov won the bronze medal in the 69-kilogram men’s weightlifting competition but later was disqualified for doping.
“Of course it was a huge, huge disappointment,” Baisalov said, “You know, first of course it was great pride in winning a bronze medal, we all felt good.” But Baisalov said some good came out of it. “Actually I think it [led to] an important discussion about ethics in sports.”
And Baisalov said, in the end, “We felt bad for the individual athlete but I think a lot of us felt angry at his trainers, at his coaches, at the team.”
Kyrgyzstan did lose its only medal but the Central Asian state not yet mentioned did not even get close.
Turkmenistan, once again, performed poorly, despite a government-driven public campaign of many years urging the country’s people to exercise and be fit. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is the poster boy for this campaign. He is regularly shown in photographs and brief (very brief) videos riding a bicycle, jogging, playing ice hockey, basketball, lifting weights, and on and on.
Berdymukhammedov had some harsh words for the Turkmen team and its trainers when they returned and ordered a reorganization of the country’s sports system.
Bokash pointed out that a big part of the growing successes of Kazakhstan’s athletes is “the huge budget allocation, state spending on sports overall. It’s increasing and it’s around $100 million per year.”
Turkmenistan is also investing large amounts of money on its sports programs and has been devoting billions of dollars towards construction of sports facilities, so far, to no effect.
The Majlis devoted attention to the role the state should play in promoting sports. Bokash mentioned a tendency on the part of some Central Asian governments to “Sovietize” their sports programs, “celebrating the Olympic success not as personal achievements, but at the collective [level].”
Baisalov noted a country like Kyrgyzstan cannot hope to allocate much money from the state budget for sports programs. Baisalov said in any case, Kyrgyzstan is better served by devoting money towards promoting sport among the public, not selecting individual athletes and funding their training and expenses.
The subject of “poaching” athletes from other countries also came up. Bokash pointed out four of Kazakhstan’s 17 medals at Rio were won by people who are naturalized citizens of Kazakhstan. Again, a country such as Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan has little in the way of incentives they can offer to athletes from other countries to entice them to change citizenship and compete for their national teams.
One of the most important themes that emerged from the discussion was the regional support many Central Asians still seem to feel for athletes from neighboring countries.
“I would like to join in congratulating our brotherly nations of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan with their achievement on an unprecedented scale and I think their victories were celebrated by all of us here in Central Asia,” Baisalov said.
Medelbek explained there was similar sentiment from the Central Asian athletes and journalists sent to Rio. A victory for Kazakhstan, or Uzbekistan, or Tajikistan, was cause for celebration among many of those from Central Asia.
The Majlis looked closer at these topics and also discussed other issues, such as the importance of events like the Olympics in reinforcing a sense of nation and why Central Asian athletes are good in some events and not so good in others.