Uzbekistan: Olympic Disappointment Has Political Ramifications in Tashkent

Taymazov’s wrestling gold was a rare bright spot for Team Uzbekistan during the London 2012 Olympic Games. (Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

When members of Team Uzbekistan returned from the London Olympic Games last month, they were hailed at the airport by cheering crowds and enthusiastic television news coverage. But sports fans are grumbling, complaining that Tashkent’s lumbering, centralized way of managing sports is to blame for a disappointing medal harvest.

Represented by 54 athletes competing in 13 sports, Team Uzbekistan won a total of four medals -- one gold and three bronzes -- at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Wrestler Artur Taymazov came home with the gold, his third consecutive Olympic medal in the men's 120kg freestyle. Rishod Sobirov won bronze in the 60kg men's judo, Soslan Tigiev scored a bronze in the men's 74kg freestyle wrestling, and Abbos Atoev also received a bronze in the men's middleweight (75kg) boxing.

Uzbek officials often use international sports competitions to score political points, and London was no exception. "The participation of our athletes in the London Olympics and their achievements are a result of the extensive attention President Islam Karimov has paid to the development of sports,” said an August 29 statement distributed by the Ministry of Culture and Sports.

The medal-winning athletes were showered with prizes. The state gave gold-medalist Taymazov $150,000 in cash, while each of the three bronze winners received $50,000. Each medalist received new cars produced by GM Uzbekistan, a joint venture with state-run UzAvtoSanoat – Taymazov a mid-size Chevy Malibu, while the three bronze winners each got compact Daewoo Lacettis, according to Gazeta.uz. (The Fund Forum, a charity run by Karimov’s daughter Gulnara Karimova, handed out flat-screen TVs).

But when the state tries to take all the credit for athletic success, it can be difficult to escape at least some of the blame when things don't go well. And there were several Uzbek blemishes associated with the London Games.

Even before the Uzbek team departed for London it was embroiled in controversy. In June, Abdulla Tangriev, who won a silver medal for judo in Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Games, was disqualified when traces of cannabis were found in his blood. And Tashkent’s chattering classes were outraged when, early on in the Olympics, gymnast Luiza Galiulina tested positive for Furosemide, a prohibited diuretic, and was booted out. For several days, the Galiulina episode was the only Olympic news relating to Uzbekistan broadcast internationally.

The overall medal count also disappointed many Uzbekistanis, especially given the relative success of neighboring Kazakhstan's team. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are often seen as rivals for regional leadership.

"Out of four medals, only one is gold. Look at the Kazakhstan [team], they won 13 medals [7 gold, 1 silver, and 5 bronze]," said Umar Tillayev, a shopkeeper in Ferghana who closely followed the Games.

Uzbekistan’s global ranking (measured by the number of medals) from the London Games dropped to 47th from a 40th place at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. (In Beijing, Uzbekistan picked up six medals – one gold, two silvers, and three bronze.)

Senior government officials have not hid their displeasure over the team's performance as well.

"We had high hopes for our athletes; unfortunately, they failed to meet these hopes," Malik Boboyev, president of the Uzbek National Olympic Committee, said in an August 9 interview with the BBC's Uzbek Service. "The main lesson that we drew for ourselves is that our athletes and their trainers must double their efforts to achieve better results."

On August 24, when Karimov sacked Deputy Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov, whose portfolio included sports management, UzMetronom, a website long suspected of links with Uzbek official structures, suggested that his dismissal was linked to the Uzbek team's performance in London.

Such comments only irritate observers, who say Tashkent places too much emphasis on senior management and not enough on taking care of athletes.

A sports journalist in Tashkent criticized what he calls a centralized approach, where money is wasted on large infrastructure projects. "Only a small portion of state funding goes to improving the skills of trainers and athletes as well as their living conditions," said the journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job. "How can we speak about developing sports when most schools lack basic equipment and a teacher’s monthly salary is less than $150?”

Spending priorities are perhaps best illustrated in the construction of the Bunyodkor Stadium in Tashkent. Capable of seating 34,000 spectators, the stadium cost the state $250 million, according to 12.uz, a government-affiliated news website. (Before the project was taken over by the government, building had begun by Zeromax, an opaque holding company that folded in 2010.)

Favoritism and corruption in sports institutions are major weaknesses, added the Tashkent journalist.

Wealthy benefactors, some with cloudy histories in business, have come to dominate Uzbekistan’s major sports institutions, including the National Olympic Committee. Salim Abduvaliyev, described by a former US ambassador in a diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks as a “mafia chieftain,” is the current president of Uzbekistan's Wrestling Association. The London Olympics’ website lists Abduvaliyev as gold-medalist Taymazov’s coach.

And until 2011, Gafur Rakhimov, another wealthy businessman that the US Treasury Department described as a leader “of Uzbek organized crime with a specialty in the organized production of drugs in the countries of Central Asia,” served as vice president of the National Olympic Committee. (He has since fled the country.)

In interviews with EurasiaNet.org, several local sports analysts said the government must pay more attention to training athletes instead of finding jobs for oligarchs.

As it is, improvements are unlikely given Tashkent’s top-down way of doing business, said the sports journalist.

He predicts government leaders “will hold several meetings at which they will criticize some officials and trainers. Some officials will be demoted, but little will change,” he said. “Top government officials need to take a more serious approach to problems in sports.”

Uzbekistan: Olympic Disappointment Has Political Ramifications in Tashkent

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