Kazakhstan: Weightlifters Bounce Back in Rio, With a Little Friendly Help
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.
Mohamed Mahmoud, Egypt’s bronze-medal winner in this event, was skeptical about Rahimov’s victory. “While improvements like Rahimov’s can be the result of good training and nutrition, Mahmoud said, “in a very short time it cannot happen like that.”
President Nursultan Nazarbayev sent telegrams to congratulate the country’s gold medal winners for “justifying the hopes of the people”, while Kazakhstan weightlifting’s head trainer, the embattled Alexei Li, reacted ecstatically to Rahimov’s victory.
Kazakhstan now has a haul of seven medals from these Games. A silver and two bronze medals in weightlifting and a silver and bronze in Judo, to add to these two golds.
Paul Bartlett is a journalist based in Almaty.