On July 29 at the London Olympics, Zulfiya Chinshanlo lifted 131 kgs in “clean and jerk” women’s weightlifting, setting a new world record in the 53 kg category and winning a gold medal for Kazakhstan. It was a major victory for Kazakhstan and its athletics program.
Or was it? Soon Xinhua, the state-run Chinese news agency, was claiming Chinshanlo for China, asserting that, contrary to her Olympic biography, she had been born in Yongzhou, Hunan Province under the Chinese name Zhao Changling and transferred to Kazakhstan in 2008 with permission to compete for its team in all international competitions. In Kazakhstan, she allegedly adopted the name Zulfiya Chinshanlo.
I must admit, I was truly skeptical of these accusations. It sounded like sour grapes on China’s part. Chinshanlo is, after all, a Dungan, an ethnic group in Central Asia that is closely related to the Chinese Hui Muslims. Wouldn’t it be easy to claim an ethnic Dungan—whose native language is a dialect of Chinese—as a Chinese citizen?
But then I got curious, and I decided to find a video of Chinshanlo speaking Russian. According to her Olympic biography, she speaks Chinese (which could mean Dungan), Kazakh, and Russian. I thought that, if her Russian was quite good, it would rule out the possibility of her having grown up in China. In Russian-speaking countries, Chinese students have a reputation for having horrible Russian. The generalization is unfairly broad, but there is a kernel of truth to it: Chinese is a language of short syllables and tones, and Russian is a language of long consonant clusters. It’s not an easy language for Chinese speakers to learn. 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.
Today, Kazakhstan won another gold medal and set another record in women’s weightlifting when Maiya Maneza, another ethnic Dungan, lifted a combined 245 kgs in the “snatch” and “clean and jerk” events. Out of curiousity, I decided to see if I could find a video of Maneza speaking Russian to see what her Russian was like.
While doing a Youtube search for Maneza, I stumbled upon what I think is the smoking gun in the story, the proof that both Chinshanlo and Maneza are actually from China and that this isn’t a big secret in Kazakhstan.
It’s a Russian language newsreel from Kazakhstan in which weightlifting coach Aleksey Ni explains how he and other members of the Kazakhstan Weightlifting Federation went to China, the country most known for women’s weightlifting, to recruit female weightlifters to train in and compete for Kazakhstan. He talks about how they sought out talented female lifters who were not champions in China but had potential, and how they specifically looked for ethnic Dungans, who they felt were “indigenous” to Kazakhstan. In the end, they chose Chinshanlo and Maneza. This information was corroborated by an earlier RFE/RL article.
I’m not an expert on the bylaws of the Olympics, but, from what I understand, an athlete must be a citizen of the country he or she represents.
Provided that Chinshanlo and Maneza have received Kazakhstani citizenship (as the RFE/RL article indicates), my attitude toward this whole story is “so what?”
Granted, if Kazakhstan fabricated the weightlifters’ country of origin in their Olympic biographies, that’s dishonest. But it doesn’t change what they have accomplished. Chinshanlo and Maneza were not champions in China. Kazakhstan apparently found them, trained them, and made them champions. Yes, they were recruited in a conscious effort by Kazakhstan to build up a women’s weightlifting team. But just being recruited doesn’t make you a champion. It was their efforts and the efforts of their trainers that allowed them to take the gold. Isn’t that what the Olympics are all about?
Wow! I never expected to get so much feedback on this post. Because more information has come out since I published yesterday, I wanted to add a brief update to address some questions surrounding Chinshanlo and Maneza’s uncertain origins and direct attention to a few underlying issues in Kazakhstan’s presentation of the two female weightlifters.
First, I want to thank the commenter “Dungan” for pointing out that Maiya Maneza was, according to her official Olympic biography, born in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. I wasn’t able to access the bio yesterday because of an internet issue. Zulfiya Chinshanlo’s place of birth, on the other hand, is officially listed as Almaty, Kazakhstan. However, given the high level of obfuscation in Kazakhstan’s presentation of the weightlifters, I don’t think we can entirely accept this as truthful.
Second, yesterday EurasiaNet published an interesting article by Richard Orange, who visited Kazakhstan’s Olympic weightlifting training camp in July 2o11. Orange notes that Chinshanlo and Maneza were generally shy and seemed unwilling to say more than a few phrases in Russian when he met them. Their trainer, Aleksey Ni, claimed that they were both Dungans from Bishkek, before conceding that they had some relatives in China. I think this suggests pretty strongly that Kazakhstan is trying to hide their origins, at least when the foreign press is involved. The seemingly obvious question is “why?”
This brings me to my final point, what I think is the most interesting issue in this whole “scandal”: the question of Chinshanlo and Maneza’s “Kazakhstan-ness”/”Central Asian-ness.” As I mentioned earlier in the post, I’m not convinced that Chinshanlo and Maneza’s origins are a huge secret in Kazakhstan. Why would Aleksey Ni talk openly about recruiting them in China in a recent Kazakhstani newsreel? And wouldn’t any local who heard them speak (either on TV or in person) realize that they were not from Kazakhstan? Rather, I think that Kazakhstan and their trainers placed the emphasis on presenting them as having familial, cultural, and historic ties to Kazakhstan and Central Asia to minimize their “foreignness.”
Ni states this openly in the newsreel, explaining that they sought out ethnic Dungans in China, who were “indigenous” to Kazakhstan. Furthermore, the weightlifters’ places of birth are listed as Almaty and Bishkek. Though Bishkek is not in Kazakhstan, it is located in culturally-similar Kyrgyzstan, not too far from southern Kazakhstan. Of course, the Chinese media is claiming that Chinshalo was not born in Kazakhstan and isn’t even Dungan, but, even if this is true, it doesn’t change what Kazakhstan is doing.
I think that, in recruiting Chinshanlo and Maneza, Kazakhstan wasn’t simply looking to win gold medals, but also to develop the sport of women’s weightlifting on its territory and create champions who the people of Kazakhstan could get behind. Though China is Kazakhstan’s largest trade partner, attitudes towards the country are not overwhelmingly positive. Many in Kazakhstan are a afraid of a mass Chinese influx, and a 2009 plan to lease 1 million hectares of farmland to China sparked protests in Almaty. One of the key themes of this protest was the fear that the lease could potentially bring millions of Chinese workers to Kazakhstan.
Therefore, recruiting ethnically Han athletes from China to compete for Kazakhstan probably wouldn’t thrill a lot of people. But, in recruiting Chinese athletes of Dungan ethnicity, a Muslim group already present in Kazakhstan, the athletics program could present the Chinshanlo and Maneza’s move to Kazakhstan as less of an athletic contract and as more of a homecoming. If they were actually born in Kazakhstan or another part of Central Asia, the better. They would possess enough “Kazakhstan-ness” or Central Asian-ness” to be accepted as athletic heroes by the people of Kazakhstan.
In spite of this unusual ethnic “public relations” factor in the recruitment and presentation of Chinshanlo and Maneza, I still maintain that their accomplishments are worthy and legitimate. The issue of Olympic athletes switching countries does raise some ethical questions, but let’s not forget good sportsmanship here. Kazakhstan bet on Chinshanlo and Maneza when China wouldn’t, and it proved to be a good bet. These two young women are consummate athletes, and they won the gold fair and square. The time for China to complain was before the Olympics, not after Kazakhstan won.
Photo by Vesti.kz