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Kazakhstan: ‘Imported’ Olympic Champions Cause Controversy

This post is part of our special coverage London 2012 Olympics.

The 2012 Olympic Games in London are already a huge success for Kazakhstan. Its athletes have so far won six gold medals, with four golds taken by the country's weightlifters.

Two golds for Kazakhstan have been claimed by Chinese-born female athletes, Zulfia Chinshanlo and Maiya Maneza. Both athletes are ethnically Dungan, a group that originates from northwestern China, many of whom fled to Central Asia after converting to Islam in the 19th century.

The Olympic success of Kazakhstan's “imported” weightlifters has stirred a lot of controversy in mainstream and social media. Before the Olympics, Kazakh officials were reluctant to acknowledge the Chinese roots of Chinshanlo and Maneza.

Chinshanlo's profile on the London 2012 Olympics website states that she was born in Almaty. As for Maneza, the website says she was born in Bishkek, the capital of neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

Zulfia Chinshanlo surrounded by fans of the Kazakhstan team after claiming a gold medal in weightlifting. Screenshot from video "Chinshanlo delights in Olympic gold' uploaded July 30, 2012, by YouTube user SNTVonline.

Zulfia Chinshanlo surrounded by fans of the Kazakhstan team after claiming a gold medal in weightlifting. Screenshot from video “Chinshanlo delights in Olympic gold’ uploaded July 30, 2012, by YouTube user SNTVonline.

Chinese state media agency Xinhua was the first to claim [zh] that Kazakhstan had changed the names of the two athletes and misinformed the Olympic Committee about their countries of origin.

According to Xinhua, Chinshanlo was born and raised in Yongzhou, Hunan province, under the Chinese name Zhao Changling. Maneza was also reportedly born in China, although there are less details about her background.

Maiya Maneza, another "imported' athlete who has claimed an Olympic gold for Kazakhstan. Screenshot from video "Maiya Maneza Kazakhstan' uploaded May 18, 2012, by YouTube user Andre Neka.

Maiya Maneza, another “imported’ athlete who has claimed an Olympic gold for Kazakhstan. Screenshot from video “Maiya Maneza Kazakhstan’ uploaded May 18, 2012, by YouTube user Andre Neka.

Doubts about the weightlifters’ origins emerged after it became clear that neither Chinshanlo nor Meneza could freely converse in Kazakh, the official language in Kazakhstan, or Russian, which serves as a lingua franca in the ethnically diverse country.

Matthew Kupfer of Registan.net was one of the first bloggers to investigate the scandal, writing:

I hoped to find a video of Chinshanlo speaking voluble Russian with no accent. Instead, I found that Chinshanlo’s Russian wasn’t that good and she did, indeed, seem to have a Chinese accent. It wasn’t necessarily proof that she had come from China, but it seemed to suggest that, if she truly was from Kazakhstan, she had grown up speaking only Dungan.

Journalist Richard Orange confirmed Kupfer's linguistic assessment. Writing on Eurasianet.org's Inside the Cocoon blog, he noted:

When photographer Ikuru Kuwajima and I visited Kazakhstan's Olympic weightlifting training camp in July 2011, it was difficult to get much out of Zulfiya Chinshanlo, the 19-year-old weightlifter who on July 29 brought Kazakhstan its second gold at the London games. Neither Chinshanlo, nor her friend Maiya Maneza, could manage more than a few fragments of Russian. And they spoke no Kazakh.

The scandal continued to sizzle in mainstream media. The Chinese Daily suggested that Beijing and Astana had struck a deal back in 2007, under which Kazakhstan was allowed to lease Chinshanlo for five years. So, next year, when the lease ends, the athlete would have to return to China. However, according to BBC, both Chinshanlo and Maneza adopted Kazakhstani citizenship shortly after leaving China.

Amid accusations of foul play, Alexei Kryuchkov, a senior Kazakh sports official, has argued that the two athletes were “underestimated” in China before Kazakh coaches found them and trained for the Olympics. Kryuchkov said [ru]:

А что они [китайцы] их [Чиншанло и Менезу] не воспитывали?.. Кто не давал им готовить их? Они же отпустили их спокойно. Без всяких возражений, когда они уходили. А по истечении шести лет, когда они достигли высоких результатов, начинает кого-то жаба есть.

Why didn't [the Chinese] train [Chinshanlo and Meneza]?.. Who did not let them do so? They let [the athletes] go easily. There were no objections when they left. And after six years, when the two have achieved remarkable success, somebody feels envy.

This sentiment is shared by many Kazakh netizens. Commenting under the above article, an anonymous user wrote[ru]:

Что за претензии? Если так сложилось бы что она не выиграла бы золото, китайцы молча сидели бы кушаю свою лапшу.

What kind of complaints are these? If [Chinshanlo] hadn't won gold, the Chinese would have eaten their noodles quietly.

On Twitter, Anuar Dossybi basked [ru] in Kazakhstan's multicultural glory:

Манеза, Чиншанло, Винокуров… Так держать, казахи! Эм… Ну или кто-там…

Maneza, Chinshanlo, Vinokurov [an ethnically Russian athlete who won another gold for Kazakhstan]… Keep it up, Kazakhs! Erm, or whoever you are…

While Aibek Baineshov tweeted [kz] triumphantly:

Бола берсiн, бола берсiн коп мейлi, “Алтын алка” бiзге коптiк етпейдi)!!!

Let it be, let it be, the more medals, the better. There are never enough gold medals)!!!

Voicing a rare criticism of the foreign-born athletes, IamAzamat wrote [ru] ironically on Twitter:

Чиншанло такая казахская фамилия.

Chinshanlo is such a typical Kazakh surname.

Another Kazakh Twitter user, Ardabek, responded [ru]:

Это не казахская фамилия, она не казашка! Она китаянка, ее имени придумали тренеры. Манеза тоже, ее имена озночает как мой майонез

[Chinshanlo] is not a Kazakh surname, she isn't Kazakh! She is Chinese, the coaches made up this name for her. Same with Maneza, whose last name sounds like “mayonnaise”.

Yet, the domestic reaction to Kazakhstan's Olympic medals has mostly been one of pride. Most netizens do not care much about the nationality and previous citizenship of athletes winning medals for Kazakhstan. Moreover, because “importing” Chinese-born athletes has proven so successful, some netizens suggest that the strategy should have been taken up earlier. Kenzhe Adenov wrote [ru] ironically on Twitter:

… После побед Чиншанло и Манезы ..То что Китай на первом месте, не его заслуга, а наша недоработка! )))

…After the victories of Chinshanlo and Maneza, the fact that China has won more gold medals than any other country is not its achievement but an omission on our part! )))

This post is part of our special coverage London 2012 Olympics.

This post is part of the GV Central Asia Interns Project at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

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