Zulfiya Chinshanlo triumphed at women's weightlifting at the Olympics, but her nationality is disputed.
When photographer Ikuru Kuwajima and I visited Kazakhstan's Olympic weightlifting training campin July 2011, it was difficult to get much out of Zulfiya Chinshanlo, the 19-year-old weightlifter who on July 29 brought Kazakhstan its second gold at the London games.
Neither Chinshanlo, nor her friend Maiya Maneza, could manage more than a few fragments of Russian. And they spoke no Kazakh.
"They're Dungans [...] from Bishkek," said Kazakhstan's trainer Alexey Ni, as they stood shyly together in one corner of the gym, giggling like the teenage girls that they still are, despite their bulging muscles. "They're very hard-working. There are only a few Dungan people, not so many."
The Dungans, a Chinese people speaking a language related to Mandarin, are Muslim converts who fled to Central Asia in the 19th Century.
For Kazakhstan to include two of them on its Olympic team demonstrated exemplary inclusiveness.
Only Ni's story is now being challenged.
According to a report in China's state-run Xinhua news agency (and picked up by CNN) Chinshanlo was in fact born and raised in Yongzhou, Hunan Province under the Chinese name Zhao Changling, and transferred to Kazakhstan legally in 2008.
According to Xinhua, a Kazakh journalist in London also claimed Dungan descent for Chinshanlo. But officials from the Hunan Province Sports Bureau insist that she is in fact Chinese.
If true, it's perhaps understandable why Kazakhstan doesn't want to emphasize this. Svetlana Podobedova, Kazakhstan's top female weightlifter, was not allowed to compete at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 after Russia, where she was born and grew up, refused to waive its claim on her, despite her marriage to Ilya Ilin, Kazakhstan's star male weightlifter.
Chinshanlo's Olympic page cites her birthplace as Almaty, Kazakhstan, and claims she speaks both Russian and Kazakh.
Even Ni didn't seem entirely confident of Chinshanlo and Maneza's origins, however, when he showed me round the sanatorium where the team was training on that sunny afternoon.
"They have relatives in China, also," he conceded.
This article originally appeared at EurasiaNet.org, an Atlantic partner site.
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