Uzbekistan Takes Gold, the World Takes Notice
Uzbekistan's Ulugbek Rashitov waves an Uzbek national flag after winning his men's -68kg taekwondo gold medal bout against Britain's Bradly Sinden during the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games, at the Makuhari Messe convention centre. CHIBA, JAPAN – JULY 25, 2021. Valery Sharifulin/TASS
The final eight seconds of a dramatic fight sealed a last gasp victory for Uzbekistan’s 19-year-old Ulugbek Rashitov to take Tokyo Olympic gold in the men’s featherweight Taekwondo competition. Seeded 17th overall, and following an impressive upset against South Korea’s Lee Dae-Hoon, Rashitov beat the odds against the UK’s heavily favoured Bradley Sinden, the number 2 seed and 2019 world champion. Not only was this Rashitov’s first Olympic medal, it was also Uzbekistan’s first win in men’s Taekwondo.
Since being first represented as an independent country at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the country has won a cumulative total of 30 medals.
However, Rashitov joins a proud tradition of Uzbekistani Olympic victors in other combat sports. Since being first represented as an independent country at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the country has won a cumulative total of 30 medals. All but three of these have been in combat sports, most notably judo and boxing. Rashitov’s win is the culmination of a concerted Uzbek investment in Taekwondo. One university in the capital, Tashkent, has dedicated an entire academic department to teaching the Korean martial art since 2018. Rashitov commented that his victory “feels like a dream,” albeit one tainted with a tragedy: he dedicated his gold medal to his late coach Kim Jin-Young, who had died six weeks earlier of stab wounds in an ill-explained incident in Tashkent. It had been Kim’s dream that the young, unknown fighter might surpass all expectations and win Uzbekistan its first-ever Olympic Taekwondo medal, and – during Covid lockdown – had paid to convert his residence into a training centre to help achieve that goal.
It had been Kim’s dream that the young, unknown fighter might surpass all expectations and win Uzbekistan its first-ever Olympic Taekwondo medal, and – during Covid lockdown – had paid to convert his residence into a training centre to help achieve that goal.
Rashitov’s Uzbekistan joins several other less sportingly prominent nations such as Ivory Coast, Cuba, Taiwan, and Vietnam, which have all produced medallists in Taekwondo since 2000, when it was first accepted as an Olympic sport. The minimal equipment costs means that training is relatively accessible to athletes from underdeveloped countries and poor backgrounds. Taekwondo fighters are being trained in refugee camps from Jordan to Djibouti, Turkey to Rwanda. There are even three competitors at Tokyo 2021 fighting as part of an IOC-funded team of stateless refugees. One of these, Iran-born Kimia Alizade, knocked out reigning Olympic champion Jade Jones, and narrowly missed out on a medal herself in the under 57kg women’s competition.
Meanwhile, Ulugbek Rashitov now adds his name to the prestigious list of Taekwondo champions that have emerged from unlikely circumstances and will remain an inspiration for others around the world to follow.