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Stoicism: Central Asia’s Olympic sport?

Photograph by Danny Gordon, NewEurasia/CC-permission.

Editor’s note: British student Danny Gordon has been cycling across the world to raise money for UNICEF and Sports Relief, and not long ago, he passed through Central Asia. We wanted his impressions on the physical culture of the region, and he shared a very intriguing insight…

I was flicking through the channels on a breezy summer afternoon. The cycling was on, and Britain had real hopes for gold resting on the shoulders of sprinter Mark Cavendish. Excited, I scanned the leaders for British jerseys. But with 5km to go, there were none to be seen, and moments later Kazakhstan’s Alexander Vinokourov broke from the front and forced his way over the line, battered and grimacing, but ultimately victorious. As the jubilant Kazakh celebrated, I remember being surprised. Not because it was a scalp, which it was, but because in some inexplicable way, I felt that cycling and Kazakhstan was an odd match. In my experience, serious cyclists had been at a premium all the way from Georgia to Tajikistan.

I began to think, “If not cycling, what sport was it that would suit these nations?” I had not meant to ignore the multitude of nuances that differentiate each of the unique Central Asian peoples, but there was certainly some noticeable common ground when it came to core values, and I wondered if it translated to sport.

For example, it was hard to overlook the respect Georgia’s strongest man expected and commanded from those around him. A mini-bus stopped with a wave of his hand, and the driver instantly agreed to take me at the price demanded by my muscular friend. I was sure the queen was less respected by her local public. Azerbaijan was rife with alpha-maleisms, illustrated by the amount of “all-clears” my tyres were given by the top dog in passing groups of young men. Kazakh truck-drivers toiled on shocking roads for long hours without complaint, knowing that any whimper of tiredness indicated weakness. Helpful, but over-zealous members of the Uzbek public waded in when there was an opportunity to demonstrate that force was the necessary measure to fix a bent rim. Perhaps most tellingly, a conversation with a Tajik revealed that men wore dark clothes because it was seen as conservative and mysterious, but most importantly, because it demonstrated power.

A theme was emerging. The value of mental strength, a brand of stoicism, and accordingly physical strength, was clear. I imagined it had been forged, by harsh terrain, harsher climates and too many conflicts to count, but whatever the reason, it was common to almost all the societies I had encountered in that Central Asian arc.

For the next couple of weeks I kept one eye on the Central Asian athletes, and noted their medal successes. Once the final medal table had been published on the web, I went about totting up the medals of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Between them, they won an admirable 35 medals, of which 33 of them had been won in either weightlifting or some combat sport. I smiled. The haul was fitting testament to the particular attitude shared by these five unique states.

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