Uzbekistan is relishing its best ever performance in an Olympic Games after some last-minute sporting victories handed the team an extra two gold medals.
The country’s haul of medals — four golds, two silver and seven bronze — put it ahead of Central Asian rival Kazakhstan and was helped in large part by its contingent of boxers. A stunning seven out of the 13 medals won by Uzbekistan came from boxing.
The first boxer to claim gold was light flyweight Hasanboy Dusmatov, who beat Colombia's Yuberjen Herney Martinez Rivas in the final of their category.
Uzbek state television broadcast a report from Dusmatov’s hometown in the Andijan region, where family and friends were watching the match. The boxer’s father said that although the family was confident Dusmatov would get the gold, they were affected by the nerves of the big Olympic occasion. Dusmatov’s could not bear to watch the broadcast and instead waited out the fight in another room.
But the best was left for last.
On the final day of competitions, Shakhobidin Zoirov won the men's Olympic flyweight boxing gold with a points victory over Russian Misha Aloyan. Later in the afternoon, Fazliddin Gaibnazarov edged out Azerbaijan's Cuban-born Lorenzo Sotomayor with a split 2-1 decision.
This last victory caught many by surprise. Sotomayor struck easily the more impressive figure with his height, long arms and confident strut.
Gaibnazarov’s win was all the more sweet for his underdog status and social media in Uzbekistan was accordingly set alight by the result.
Uzbekistan’s last Olympic gold for boxing came in the Sydney Games of 2000, courtesy of Mahammatkodir Abdullaev in the light welterweight category.
Abdullaev was one of the first to comment on Gaibnazarov’s achievement, saying that the whole country had cried with joy at the win.
Uzbekistan’s other medals were won in weightlifting, wrestling and judo.
But the weightlifting gold was not won without controversy, at least by Uzbek standards. Ruslan Nurudinov burst into a frenzy of celebration after coming top in the men’s 105-kilogram weightlifting division, sticking out his tongue, shouting, bowing and crying. And, in a gesture that appears to have appalled officials back home, he could be heard shouting “Glory to Allah.” Those frames were cut out of later repeats of the scene on Uzbek television.
Even at the Olympics (or maybe especially at Olympics), Uzbek officials keep a close watch on what their people are doing and saying.
Back in Uzbekistan, the country is celebrating with gusto and flags have been hung out all over the place.
“Nobody imagined Uzbekistan would do so well. After the first gold medal, I began watching the Games every day, especially the boxers and wrestlers. Every working day started with conversations about how our guys had done,” said Avazbek, a trader at Chorsu bazaar in central Tashkent.
In the last Olympics, in London, Uzbekistan won only four medals — one gold and three bronze.
There has been similar joy in Tajikistan after Dilshod Nazarov won the country’s first ever gold medal in the hammer throw.
As in Uzbekistan, social media went crazy.
“I can’t event tell what my countrymen’s reaction is going to be when I get back home. Judging by the number of ‘likes’ that I have got on social media, probably the country didn’t sleep and was waiting for my performance,” Nazarov said after his win.
Alas, there were only bitter tears for Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.
Kyrgyzstan weightlifter Izzat Artykov was stripped of his bronze medal after testing positive for strychnine. Artykov, who won bronze in the 69-kilogram category, set the sad precedent of becoming the first athlete to be excluded from this edition of the Olympics for doping after he tested positive for strychnine, a banned performance enhancer more commonly used to kill rodents.
And Turkmenistan has failed yet again to get any medals at all. The country’s continued record of sporting failure will be felt especially intensely this year in light of the 2nd edition of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games set to be held in Ashgabat in 2017. The event is being loudly advertised by state media as a unique international showcase of the country’s achievements — not just in sport (which don’t exist) but across the board. Untold billions of dollars have been spent on preparations, possibly thousands displaced from their homes to make way for the brand new venues and countless hours lost whipping up the population into a keep-fit, competitive mindset. All for nothing, if the Olympic no-show is anything to go by.
Kazakhstan should consider its Games something of a success. On paper, they appear to have excelled less this time. They won fewer golds — three in Rio against seven in London. But four of the London golds look likely to be stripped following positive steroid results in a recent re-analysis of samples of four gold medalist weightlifters, including national hero Ilya Ilyin.
What is more, Kazakhstan won more medals across the board in Rio — 17 against the 13 in London.
Almost half of Kazakhstan medal haul came thanks to the efforts of sportswomen, which sets it apart from its neighbors in the region. Only two other Central Asian nations have ever had female medal winners in the Summer Games in the post-independence period — Mavzuna Chorieva, who won bronze for Tajikistan in the lightweight category in 2012, and Ekaterina Khilko, who got bronze in the 2008 Games in Beijing in the trampolining discipline.
Central Asia countries have by and large historically done their winning in disciplines requiring martial skills and brawn — so wresting, judo, boxing, weightlifting and, this year, the hammer throw.
In this too Kazakhstan has proven itself an outlier by achieving success in multiple sports and disciplines. This year, Almaty-born Dmitriy Balandin assured himself hero status by nabbing gold in the highly competitive 200 meters men’s breaststroke, setting a national record and securing Kazakhstan’s first-even swimming medal. Veteran Olympian Olga Rypakova jumped 14.74 meters in the final round of the triple jump to bag a bronze.
The variation of performances and results is deserving of deeper study and is highly revealing of many underlying factors. One, of course, is money. Kazakhstan is perhaps best positioned and most inclined to invest heavily in its sportspeople, and the results have shown. Also, many of Kazakhstan’s Olympic winners have originally come from other countries. Some have drifted naturally toward Kazakhstan from other former Soviet republics, but others, more contentiously, from China, amid unconvincing claims of ethnic Kazakh heritage.
Perhaps the only other country that might have been in a position to throw money at foreign sportsmen and trainers — Turkmenistan — has by dint of its profoundly isolationist mindset eschewed such an approach. Again, the country’s unwillingness to be exposed to outside influences has been telling and the chance of high-profile sporting success in the near future is extremely low.
Uzbekistan has evidently focused narrow but deeply, a smart strategy that has paid off handsomely.
But perhaps the greatest tributes should go the sportsmen from cash-strapped Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Even neither has known enormous sporting glory — far from it this year for Kyrgyzstan, sadly — competitors from those nations labor tirelessly against odds that even their highly motivated peers in wealthy Western nations might struggle to comprehend. Sportsmen in poor countries must juggle the obligations of daily life, working often poorly paid jobs and then, amid all that, to find the time to train for several hour daily with the few resources at their disposal. In truth, the Olympic spirit burness brighter in those who sweat, strive and suffer only to lose than in those who coast to victory.