Bringing it Home: Caspian Triumphs at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games
Cuba's Julio Cesar La Cruz (L) and ROC's Muslim Gadzhimagomedov fight in their men's heavyweight boxing final bout during the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games, at the Kokugikan Arena. TOKYO, JAPAN – AUGUST 6, 2021. Valery Sharifulin/TASS
At the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Caspian countries have made a significant impact. Lead by athletes from Russia, the region will be bringing home over 120 medals on August 8. It is easy for individual stories to get lost in the shuffle amid so much celebration and circumstance, so here's a breakdown of some of the most exciting successes that have featured Caspian region competitors.
What is the ROC, and what are they doing at the Olympics?
Russia was banned from the Olympics in 2019 after being "found guilty of a state-sponsored doping scheme" that shook the Games' integrity to its core. In the spirit of competition and inclusion, however, Russian athletes have been permitted (after extensive screening for performance-enhancing drugs) to compete, albeit with some caveats under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee, which has removed all Russian national symbols for the duration of the games.
The effect of this semi-ban on both Russian athletes and fans has been an interesting phenomenon that has produced more Russian pride than Tokyo organizers were trying to encourage. In practice, "the extra scrutiny of their team, which had to pass a rigorous drug clearance program, has given Russian sports fans a restored sense of pride in the victories that followed."
Interestingly, the 333 athletes competing as part of the ROC team have secured more medals than the softer-policed Russian athletes who competed in Rio in 2016.
Dagestan in Action
Amongst successful ROC sports folk from Russia's Caspian region were two medal-winning Dagestani boxers. Muslim Gadzhimagomedov, who was narrowly beaten on points by Cuban Julio la Cruz in the men's heavyweight final, was born in an inaccessible village across the Greater Caucasus from Georgia and Azerbaijan. His choice of walk-out song My Dagestan consciously echoes the same music popularised by his better-known countryman, the UFC superstar Khabib Nurmagomedov. There was also a heartwarming tale of success in the ladies under 75kg with a bronze medal for Dagestani boxer Zenfira Magomedalieva. The 33-year-old mother took up the sport to lose weight less than a decade ago and has shot to success against all the odds.
A Tale of Two Iranians
This year in Tokyo sees the largest group of refugee athletes to ever compete at an Olympic Games. Founded in 2015, the Refugee Olympic Team exists to give opportunity to athletes that have been displaced from their home country, whether by war, personal politics, or other circumstances. In this sense, the Refugee Olympic Team truly embodies the competitive and inclusive spirit of the Games, giving space to many who would have otherwise never been able to fulfil their Olympic potential. This year's women's under-57kg taekwondo competition was lent a particular political frisson when Iranian-born refugee Kimia Aliazadeh beat an opponent also from Iran.
Alizadeh emigrated to Europe last year in protest against Iran's treatment of women. In reaching her Tokyo podium, she needed to beat her former teammate, fellow Iranian Nahid Kiayani. Apparently, at least one commentator on state-controlled Iranian TV refused to mention Alizadeh's name during the contest.
Interestingly, Alizadeh is not the only Iranian athlete competing on behalf of another country, or no country at all. Now fighting for Mongolia, judo star Saeed Mollaei left Iran in 2019 in protest of being ordered to deliberately lose the semi-final of the World Cup judo tournament. Apparently, the prospect of him facing an Israeli opponent in the final was politically untenable to the Iranian regime, which refuses to recognize Israel as a nation-state and avoids situations in which that country might gain positive coverage on Iranian news channels.
As is increasingly the tradition, Caspian athletes continued to snap up world records as they dominate Olympic weightlifting.
Lasha Talakhadze came to the Olympics with gold in his destiny. After winning it all at the 2016 Rio Games and setting a world record in both the snatch and the clean jerk, the Georgian strong man arrived in Tokyo with victory in mind. He did not disappoint.
Competing in the over-109kg super-heavyweight category, Talakhadze eventually lifted a whopping 223 kg for the snatch and 265 kg for the clean jerk, breaking both of his own world records. His combined lift total of 488kg was a full 47kg more than silver medallist, Iran's Ali Davoudi, could muster. Talakhadze indeed held the world above his shoulders once again.
In the men's under-109 kg category, Uzbekistan's Akbar Djuraev raised a combined total of 430kg defeating Armenia's Simon Martirosyan and breaking Martirosyan's world record in the process. It was a second gold of the Games for Uzbekistan following the dramatic last-minute victory of Ulugbek Rashitov in Taekwondo.
Azerbaijan Scores Seven
Azerbaijani competitors won seven medals, including three silvers, a tally that had more than doubled in the last two days of the Games. All were in combat sports. The result would have been widely admired were it not for a far more impressive performance at the last Olympic Games, in Rio de Janeiro. That saw a nationally defining 18-medal haul that was far and away the country's greatest athletic performance since it began competing under its own flag after the fall of the Soviet Union.
This year, amongst the top Azerbaijani stars, two were naturalized citizens with unusual backgrounds. Irinya Kindzerska, who won the bronze medal in women's Judo, was born in Bakota, Ukraine. That entire town has since become submerged beneath the waters of a reservoir created by the construction of a hydroelectric plant.
Then there's light heavyweight boxer Alfonso Dominguez who moved from poverty in Cuba, becoming Azerbaijani as a way to increase his chances at international competition. All the hard work paid off with Alfonzo taking a bronze medal in Tokyo, his first Olympic win.
For Azerbaijan's Greco-Roman wrestler Rasiv Huseynov, there were big shoes to fill at these Olympics. His father, now also his coach, had been an iconic master of the sport in Soviet days. Huseynov junior, who is a lieutenant in the Azerbaijani armed forces, secured a bronze medal, not only living up to his father's former glory but also upholding national pride in a final bout that pitted him against Karapet Chalyan, an opponent from Azerbaijan's geopolitical nemesis, Armenia.
A First for Turkmenistan
Though Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan gained more medals, the Tokyo Olympics were very special for Turkmenistan, whose single silver was the first-ever Olympic medal for the country since independence in 1991. The star was Polina Guryeva, competing in the under-59kg women's weightlifting event, though her earlier sport career had started with artistic gymnastics.