Making their mark … Kazakhstan is escaping from the shadow of Borat.KAZAKHSTAN came to London wanting to be taken seriously. They probably knew they would not get through this Games without a mention of mankini but what they did not anticipate was the commentary to be so brazen and offensive. While the Kazakhs are flying on the medal tally – winning three gold medals in the first four days of competition – they are less happy about their treatment on the streets of London.
Their deputy chef de mission Aslan Amanov said members of the team and delegation had been recipients of abuse outside Olympic Park, stemming from Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, which parodied their country.
‘‘In the village there is absolutely no problem,’’ Amanov said. ‘‘The sports world knows Kazakhstan, our good side. It is when we go outside it is very disappointing. When you walk around the city sometimes they shout things at you which are not OK. Some were drunk and they were shouting all sorts of words.
‘‘We tried not to pay attention to it but it’s still … how can I say it, it’s your country. Of course nobody takes it seriously but there are some thing that you cannot tolerate, things about your mother and sister. No matter how democratic you are you will never tolerate the words that Borat was saying about us.’’
It is now the Kazakhs, not just their tormentors, doing the laughing. The central Asian republic was placed sixth on the medal tally a quarter way through the Games. That put them ahead of heavyweights Russia, Great Britain, Germany and Australia, who beat Kazakhstan 7-4 in men’s water polo on Tuesday but ended the day, in the overall count, two golds behind them in 12th with six medals.
The latest national hero is weightlifter Maiya Maneza, whose 245kg total in the women’s 63kg category elevated her to the top of the dais on Tuesday. ‘‘I have waited my whole life for this,’’ she said. ‘‘This is for all the people who cheered for me.’’
There is a lot of that happening in Kazakhstan at the moment. On the first day of the Games, veteran cyclist Alexander Vinokourov was an unexpected winner of the road race. At the weekend, they doubled their haul of gold in extraordinary scenes when the teenager Zulfiya Chinshanlo broke the clean and jerk and total world record in weightlifting’s 53kg division.
A second weightlifting gold means the team has already achieved the stated goal of three gold medals in London, set out by its top sports official, Talgat Yermegiyayev.
Given their previous success in boxing and wrestling there could be more to come. ‘‘This is not the end of the story yet,’’ Amanov said.
It is a wonderful tale for the former Soviet state, an ethnically diverse, resource-rich slab of land about the size of western Europe that hugs Russia and China. And it has not arrived by accident.
Cohen’s hit movie made the country an easy target although, reportedly, their tourist trade grew despite descriptions like this from travel guide Lonely Planet: ‘‘If you’re not a fan of endless semi-arid steppe and decaying industrial cities, Kazakhstan may seem bleak, but those who enjoy remoteness, wide open spaces, lunar landscapes, long hypnotic train rides and horse sausage will definitely be in their element. If it sometimes looks like the landscape has suffered from hundreds of nuclear explosions, well, parts of it have – ever since Russian rocket scientists started using Kazakhstan as a sandpit in the late 1940s.’’
Despite the jokes, long-serving President Nursultan Nazarbayev has set about earning the country international recognition through sport. ‘‘He has poured all his energy into this and that’s why we are getting the results,’’ Amanov said.
Kazakh authorities were done no favours in overturning perceptions by an incident in Kuwait in March when organisers of a shooting championship mistakenly downloaded Cohen’s comedy version of the Kazakh national anthem instead of the real tune and it was played as the gold medal-winning team stood on the podium. It led Yermegiyayev, the chairman of the Kazakh Sport and Physical Education Agency, to issue instructions to the London delegation to ensure the proper national anthem was played.
If that seems like a trivial matter, the country’s increased commitment to featuring prominently in international sport is not. While the doping scandal that dogged the Kazazh-owned professional cycling team Astana between 2007 and 2010 was a blow, they won the hosting rights to the 2011 Asian Winter Games. They were held in the cities of Almaty and Astana, and coincided with hundreds of billions of tenge, the national currency, being spent on building and upgrading venues, and other sporting infrastructure.
In London, Kazakh athletes have an extra incentive to put their nation in lights. It was announced in the lead-up to the Games that gold medallists would receive a $US250,000 ($238,000) bonus, while silver medallists would pick up $US125,000 and bronze medallists $US75,000.
There is also cash for any who finish sixth or better in their events. Coaches, too, were given a significant pay rise, and earn between $US500 to $US2000 a month.
Additionally, there was major investment in the athletes’ preparation in an effort to make Kazakhstan’s fifth Olympic campaign since emerging from the behind the iron curtain their most successful. A government fund reportedly allocated 1 billion tenge ($6.35 million) to pay for ‘‘additional sports equipment and biomedical support’’ and its athletes’ pre-Olympics training. It appears to be paying off.
‘‘Now we are showing the world we can do something good,’’ Amanov said.
Who’s laughing now?
Kazakhstan is the land of Borat and gold medals. Once a part of the USSR, the nation wasn’t often part of general discussion until Sacha Baron Cohen put it on the map. But so far in London the Kazakhs are enjoying a great time of things on the sporting field. Cyclist Alexandre Vinokourov and weightlifters Maiya Maneza and Zulfiya Chinshanlo have made great the glorious nation from which they hail. What next? Maybe Cohen appearing in a mockumentary about Australia’s sporting woes.
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