The afternoon training session for Kazakhstan’s Olympic weightlifting team is noisy business. Every few seconds, it seems, one of the team lets a 100-kilogram barbell drop to the floor and the room rings with a shuddering clang.
At a remote sanatorium in the hills surrounding Tekeli, 300 kilometers from Almaty, the team is already training twice a day, week in, week out, for next year’s London Olympics. Enver Turkeleri, the venerable Bulgarian Turk who oversees the team’s strict training regime, shuffles around inspecting his charges with a benevolent eye, noting the weights they lift. There are 12 athletes and four trainers working during a recent visit. But one person is conspicuous by his absence.
Ilya Ilin, 22, returned from Beijing a hero in 2008, having won Kazakhstan’s first Olympic gold in its independent history.
Mention his name now in Tekeli and people go quiet.
“He has the disease of Olympic champions,” sighed Vilory Pak, his former personal trainer, breaking off to bellow: “Don’t be a girl, lift it like man!” to a muscled female lifter.
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Richard Orange is an Almaty-based journalist specializing in Central Asian affairs