Police in authoritarian Uzbekistan’s capital are often accused of taking a hard line on fun. This week they’re living up to the reputation.
Citing the hazard bicycles pose to traffic, Tashkent police have launched a campaign to seize bicycles from residents and fine cyclists, according to the private Novyy Vek newspaper.
Novyy Vek reported on April 23 that cyclists were facing fines while bicycle shops have been advised to close down.
The campaign, which began April 21, is linked to the growing number of traffic accidents involving cyclists, the newspaper quotes a police officer as saying. Uzbekistan registered about 3.3 million traffic violations between January and November 2012, according to Interior Ministry figures, but numbers involving bicycles are not available.
One businessman who rents out bicycles told the newspaper that police had seized bikes from clients who were having a chat on the pavement outside his shop. "Each of them was fined 26,500 sums [about $9 at the black-market rate] for unknown reasons,” he said.
Tashkent authorities banned motorcycles and scooters in 2005 because they were "much more appropriate for [carrying out] an assassination than cars," an Interior Ministry official was quoted as saying at the time.
This face passes the censors. Uzbekistan vs UAE in Tashkent, March 2012.
Tashkent is usually keen to foster patriotism among the people of Uzbekistan. But sometimes enough’s enough, apparently. In a land known for its rules, Uzbekistan has now established guidelines for just how far football fans can take their fun.
The 12uz.com website reports that the Ministry of Culture and Sport has banned Uzbek fans from "chanting" during football matches, painting "faces and other body parts," and otherwise getting rowdy.
Some of the new rules, which were signed by Interior Minister Bahodir Matlyubov and Uzbekistan Football Federation President Mirabror Usmanov on February 21, may help keep the peace. They require police to search fans entering stadiums. No more standing on stairways or hanging on fences and railings. And fans’ banners should not contain "insults" against the opposite side's religious, ethnic or other feelings.
Fans will have to leave their animals at home, but they will still be allowed to take their vuvezelas, drums, cameras and mobile phones to matches.
But some of the rules border on the overbearing. Fans must “respect” the symbols of Uzbekistan, the Football Federation and all teams. Banners should not exceed 2 square meters and no side should be longer than 1.2 meters.
The new rules will be tested on March 26 when Uzbekistan faces Lebanon in World Cup qualifiers at Tashkent's sleek new Bunyodkor Stadium.
Kazakhstan is experiencing a betting boom. Bookmaker's offices are mushrooming across the country, allowing just about anyone to gamble on international sports matches. And, as if to tempt every last ludomaniac, thousands of electronic kiosks – in shopping arcades, pedestrian underpasses, and gas stations – are standing by to take your bets.
The situation looked dire for Kazakhstan's gamblers six years ago when authorities forced casinos to relocate to two purpose-built betting zones – Shchuchinsk in the north and Kapshagay in the south. The move was designed to help regulate and tax this somewhat shady business and confront gambling addiction.
While the exclusive casinos are keeping the high-rollers happy, in recent months a number of nationwide bookmaker chains have sprung up to cater to small-time punters who wish to gamble on international soccer and hockey matches and the like. While casinos require visitors to purchase between $300-500 in chips, in these state-licensed bookmakers, which are often attached to bars and restaurants, the minimum stake is 500 tenge ($3.30). At parlors like Bet City, Fair Play and Profit, it's never been easier to place a bet.
Today there are hundreds of such licensed bookmakers operating in Kazakhstan. Olimp, the biggest network, has 267 branches, with 86 in Almaty and 61 in the capital, Astana.
For those who like a little after-hours gambling, online betting is also gaining ground. Bets can even be made at ubiquitous QIWI payment terminals (usually used for topping-up mobile phones and paying utility bills). Across Kazakhstan there are 10,000 such reverse-ATM machines just waiting to inhale your cash.
European authorities say they have uncovered a vast conspiracy to fix football matches in Europe, Asia and South America. How much do you want to bet that clubs from Central Asia, a region that features some of the most corrupt nations in the world, were involved?
Officials at Europol – a pan-European law enforcement agency based in The Hague – say they have identified 380 football matches that were rigged. A Europol statement said the conspiracy originated in Asia and involved at least 425 individuals – including match referees, club officials, players and members of organized criminal gangs . The statement doesn’t provide specific names, places or dates, but it does indicate that high-profile international matches were fixed. In all, the rigged games are believed to have generated 8 million euros in gambling profits, the Europol statement indicates.
“Among the 380 or more suspicious matches identified by this case are World Cup and European Championship qualification matches, two UEFA Champions League matches and several top-flight matches in European national leagues. In addition, another 300 suspicious matches were identified outside Europe, mainly in Africa, Asia, South and Central America,” the Europol statement said.
Other information contained in the Europol release suggested that there’s a good possibility that clubs in former Soviet states are involved. “The organized criminal group behind most of these activities has been betting primarily on the Asian market,” the statement said. “The ringleaders are of Asian origin, working closely together with European facilitators. During the investigation, links were also found to Russian-speaking and other criminal syndicates.”
One of Central Asia's favorite sporting pastimes, kokpar, is set to go mainstream in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan's Association for National Sports has floated plans to professionalize the rough-and-tumble sport and establish purpose-built stadiums across the country.
In a game of kokpar, a distant cousin of polo, two teams of mounted players struggle to take a headless goat carcass into the opposing team’s goal. Kokpar – which often translates as “goat-grabbing” – is better known as “buzkashi” in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Sadybek Tugel, the Association’s vice president, told KazTAG on January 15 that the aim is to move kokpar to a professional club system with 16 centers across the country. Tugel also envisages setting up a National Sports Center and training college in the capital, Astana, to promote indigenous sports such as kokpar. Affiliated schools will open in Almaty and in Kazakhstan's 14 regional centers.
Kokpar games have been known to last for hours. To make the sport more television-friendly, the Kazakhs might think about adopting the Afghan Olympic Committee's rules for championship buzkashi: They limit the game to two 45-minute halves, like in soccer.
Tradition or not, kokpar still courts controversy. As EurasiaNet.org reported last year, animal-rights activists are pushing to introduce plastic dummy goats to replace the bloody carcasses. Some, though, might find the game a tad pedestrian without the pre-match slaughter.
Tashkent is maintaining a stony silence over the fate of wrestler Soslan Tigiev. This week, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped the Uzbek of his Olympic bronze medal after he tested positive for a banned substance. Thus far, official media outlets in Uzbekistan have failed to cover the story.
Private media outlets, including olam.uz and gazeta.uz, have carried the IOC press release detailing the facts, but have refrained from making any comment. While these outlets are privately owned, they toe the official government line when it comes to reporting. Uzbek government mouthpiece Narodnoye Slovo and the Foreign Ministry's information agency, Jahon, have studiously ignored any reference to the embarrassing case.
Tigiev took bronze in London this summer in 74kg freestyle wrestling, adding to the silver he won in Beijing in 2008. The IOC reported on November 7 that it was stripping Tigiev of the London medal after he tested positive for the prohibited substance methylhexaneamine in an August 10 urine sample. The IOC asked for the immediate return of his medal, diploma and medallist pin.
Since July, Astana and Beijing have engaged in an emotional rivalry over Olympic gold medalist Zulfiya Chinshanlo. During the London games, Chinese media were adamant that the weightlifter was about to return to the People’s Republic, claiming that Chinshanlo was born Zhao Changling in a remote mountainous area of Hunan Province and had been loaned to Kazakhstan in 2008 for a five-year period.
But Chinshanlo told Kazakh press after earning Kazakhstan a gold that she was committed to the Central Asian republic. Moreover, Chinshanlo’s biography on the official Web page for the 2012 Olympic Games lists her birthplace as Almaty. (Others report she was born in Kyrgyzstan.)
Now Chinese media have quoted her saying she’s returning to China.
China Radio International's English website reported on October 24 that the champion weightlifter was spotted in Hunan applying for papers to return to China.
She had a different story to tell Kazakh media, however, claiming on October 26 she was merely paying a visit to her former coach in Yongzhou, Hunan, where a Caravan.kz article says she took up weightlifting as an 11-year-old.
A rider demonstrates his skill at tiin ilmei (catching the corn).
You can’t travel too long through the Kyrgyz heartlands without coming across some horse games. Recently the eastern Tajikistan town of Murgab, a region dominated by ethnic Kyrgyz, hosted a festival to celebrate the games.
The two-day event featured four traditional horseback standards: tiin ilmei (catching the corn), in which riders attempt to snag balls of cloth off the ground while riding at top speeds; kyz kuumai (catching the bride), where men on horseback chase female riders hoping for a kiss (if the male fails, the woman gets to chase and whip him); an all-out long-distance horse race; and er odarysh (flip the saddle), a wrestling match in which two riders each attempt to pull his opponent off his horse.
Although organizers had hoped to have the traditional goat polo game of ulak tartysh, only seven horses were available and thus it was cancelled. Still, the crowd of more than one hundred onlookers -- Kyrgyz fans, foreign travelers, and expat aid workers -- at the internationally sponsored festival last month, remained enthusiastic throughout the event.
Well, mostly. One local Kyrgyz man carefully eyed the horses like a connoisseur, noting that the riders were good but the horses needed more experience. As he spoke, the crowd was cheering on a few competitors galloping to the finish of a long race around a nearby hill. One of the horses came to an exhausted standstill about 50 meters before the finish and refused to continue.
The man continued, “You see? Ha! He can’t even finish. Good for him to stop!”
While light rain and sand blew through an awards ceremony concluding the weekend, the crowd applauded as young victors received prizes such as mobile phones, DVD players, and televisions.
With the dust now settling on the London Olympics, Kazakhstan has emerged as the undisputed Central Asia champion, finishing a laudable 12th in the overall medal table, up from 29th four years ago in Beijing. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan also made it to the winner’s podium.
But besides the considerable costs of training and putting athletes forward for Olympic glory, what have the wins cost Central Asia’s thin pocketbooks? Leaders across the region promised more than fame to athletes who could score a medal in London, including cash prizes, apartments and luxury cars.
In Kazakhstan’s case, the cash prizes to be doled out total over $2 million – $250,000 for each of seven golds, $150,000 for one silver, and $75,000 for each of five bronzes. Uzbekistan will fork out $100,000 to its gold winner, 120-kilogram freestyle wrestler Artur Taymazov, and $50,000 to each of three bronze winners. It’s not clear what Tajikistan was offering its bronze winner, however. President Emomali Rakhmon set the prize for gold at $63,000. But the Dushanbe mayor and the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party each promised female boxer Mavzuna Chorieva – who won a bronze – an apartment.
There’s a whiff of something rotten in the air, and it’s trailing the Azerbaijani boxing team at the London Olympics.
Forget about the badminton scandal that featured Chinese, South Korean, and Indonesian players throwing matches. Perhaps the most egregious behavior so far at these Olympic Games has been the boxing officiating - and Azerbaijani boxers have just happened to be the beneficiaries of two of the most controversial decisions.
The latest result to prompt howls of disbelief was Azerbaijan heavyweight Teymur Mammadov’s decision August 5 over Siarhei Karneyu of Belarus. Boxing commentators who watched the fight said Mammadov should have been disqualified in the third round for a clear rule violation.
But it turned out that if the bout’s referee had one more eye, he’d be a Cyclops.
“This was as big a travesty as we've seen so far,” boxing commentator Scott Christ wrote on the Bad Left Hook blog, referring to the scoring in the Mammadov fight.
NBC boxing analyst Teddy Atlas offered perhaps the most memorable comment on the officiating, when, after the Mammadov bout, he said: “I’m going to start keeping a bucket here near ringside, because I want to throw up.”
The Mammadov decision followed on the heels of a bantamweight bout, in which Azerbaijani fighter Muhammed Abdulahmidov got pummeled, and yet was declared the winner. That decision, however, was overturned on appeal.