LONDON – A diplomatic ruckus has erupted between China and Kazakhstan amid disputed claims over the origin of two weightlifting gold medalists.
Maiya Maneza and Zulfiya Chinshanlo both claimed gold for Kazakhstan in the women's 63 and 53kg events respectively, and the central Asian nation has responded furiously to reports the pair were born and raised in China.
Kazakhstan has enjoyed its best Olympic Games ever, winning six gold medals. President Nursultan Nazarbayev rewarded Maneza and Chinshanlo with cash gifts of $250,000 each and hailed their triumphs as "proud glories" from "outstanding daughters of our nation."
But China's official state news agency begs to differ. Chinshanlo, according to Xinhua news service, was born as Zhao Changling in the Hunan province of China, and was given dispensation to move to and compete for Kazakhstan as recently as 2008. Zhou Junfu, of the Hunan Weightlifting Association, insisted that the lifter had competed and trained with that association until her switch.
Yet that is where the plot thickens. Firstly, the Olympic profile for Chinshanlo states that she was born in Almaty, the biggest city in Kazakhstan. In contrast, Kazakhstan weightlifting authorities have both her and Maneza registered as having been born in Bishkek, the capital of neighboring Kyrgyzstan, which also borders China.
To add to the confusion, Xinhua says the competitors are members of China's Dungan minority. However, the Dungan primarily reside in the most remote areas of the country, and many also live in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, with border controls in the mountainous regions virtually impossible to monitor.
In Kazakhstan, the feeling is that China is unfairly trying to poach some of its glory.
"The women are Kazakh, they are from Kazakhstan, they live in Kazakhstan, they won gold medals for Kazakhstan," team spokesman Mendihan Tapsir told Yahoo! Sports.
Maneza, who broke the Olympic record on her way to victory, has admitted to having lived in China with her family as a child, but is adamant that her weightlifting career did not begin until she returned to Kazakhstan in her early teens.
China has won six gold medals in weightlifting at these Games, two fewer than its tally from the Beijing Olympics four years ago. The sport's stars are firmly in the spotlight in China, with young medal hopeful Zhou Jun coming under heavy criticism for crashing out early in the competition. Since its inclusion in the Summer Games beginning in Sydney in 2000, China has dominated women's weightlifting and has collected 15 medals overall to Kazakhstan's six.
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As well as the golds for Maneza and Chinshanlo, Kazakhstan won a third weightlifting gold through Svetlana Podobedova in the 75kg event. Yet Podobedova is tinged with controversy as well. A native Russian, she switched allegiance to Kazakhstan after failing a doping test several years ago.
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