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Kazakh Olympians Discover Gold

Kazakh cyclist Aleksandr Vinokurov's (left, with teammate Assan Bazaev) triumph on July 28 in the road cycling event set the tone for his country's success, one journalist says.
Kazakh cyclist Aleksandr Vinokurov's (left, with teammate Assan Bazaev) triumph on July 28 in the road cycling event set the tone for his country's success, one journalist says.
Some attribute it to experience; some put it down to a combination of hard work and sheer luck; others say it's all horse meat. But no matter how you slice it, Kazakhstan definitely has the "Midas touch" at the 2012 Olympic Games.

Just like King Midas of Greek legend, it seems like everything Team Kazakhstan touches in London is turning to gold.

Before the Games began, the country's Agency for Sport Affairs and Physical Training set the bar high for Kazakh athletes with a stated goal of at least three gold medals. With some of the team's strongest events still to come, those expectations have been exceeded by far.

Through August 6, Kazakhstan had won six gold medals -- good for eighth among all competing countries. The team added to its medal haul on August 6 with a bronze, and is poised for more with two more boxers in the semifinals.

The gold spree began a day after the opening ceremony, with Aleksandr Vinokurov's triumph on July 28 in the road cycling event. The weightlifters followed the lead, with Kazakh women crowding the top step of the podium -- Zulfiya Chinshanlo took the 53-kilogram event, Maiya Maneza won the 63-kilogram competition, and Svetlana Podobedova struck gold in the 75-kilogram category.

A gold by male teammate Ilya Ilyin in the 94-kilogram event added to the tally, with each of the lifters achieving personal bests. In athletics, Olga Rypakova got the team on track by winning the women's triple jump on August 5.

Unexpected Success

It's not like Team Kazakhstan had never been on the winning stage before -- it brought home two golds, four silvers, and seven bronze medals from the 2008 Beijing Games, good for an overall ranking of 29 in the medal standings -- but six golds?

Nessip Dzhunisbai, editor in chief of the Astana-based "Sport" newspaper and head of the Sport Journalists' Association of Kazakhstan, says the formula for success is simple: "Experience, hard work, money, and a great deal of pure luck."

Weightlifter Ilya Ilyin attributes his success to an unorthodox diet.
Weightlifter Ilya Ilyin attributes his success to an unorthodox diet.
Dzhunisbai won't even rule out divine intervention, noting that when Vinokurov won "there was feeling among the team that God was helping the Kazakh team this time."

"We were not expecting gold from Vinokurov, because he is nearly 40 years old and he had finished another race, the Tour de France, the previous week, and he couldn't win any stage of that competition," Dzhunisbai says.

"He was already tired. We would have thought Vinokurov could finish the Olympic race among the top 10 or five -- maybe among the best three -- but nobody was expecting him to win gold. When he got the gold, it was as if his victory jolted the others into a winning mood."

Experience...And Money

Experience appears to have helped: Chinshanlo, Maneza, Rypakova, and Ilyin, for example, each won world championships and medaled in the Asian Games in recent years.

See RFE/RL's full Olympic coverage here

Kazakhstan has also increased its talent pool by luring established stars and promising young athletes from abroad by offering Kazakh citizenship -- and reportedly generous financial incentives. Olympic champion Maneza, for example, was born in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, while Chinshanlo hails from China. Podobedova originally competed for her native Russia before accepting Kazakhstan's offer to become naturalized as a Kazakh citizen.

And investment has also paid off. Dzhunisbai says the Kazakh government has made sports a priority, and has backed it up with generous funding, by hiring of highly-qualified coaches, and by giving its top athletes access to top training facilities both at home and abroad.

"It's not a secret that the money plays huge role in preparations," Dzhunisbai adds.

No Horsing Around

For one Kazakh champion, however, the secret to Olympic success lies in, well, a stable.

Shortly after receiving his gold medal, weightlifter Ilyin said he found strength in a carefully prepared diet of horse meat and "kumis," a fermented dairy product made from mare's milk.

Ilyin says he believes horse meat is an "ideal food" because it's easy to digest. "You don't waste any personal energy and you don't have to digest difficult things like lamb or pork," the champion has said.

With women's middleweight boxer (75 kilogram) Marina Volnova, and men's super heavyweight (+91 kilogram) Ivan Dychko still in the medal hunt, opponents better beware. According to Kazakh media reports, the Olympic team brought enough supply of the equine cuisine to London to keep it running throughout the Games.

Written and reported by Farangis Najibullah, with additional reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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