Sparsely populated and isolated from most of the outside world, Turkmenistan has finally won its first Olympic medal since independence from the Soviet Union.
Weightlifter Polina Guryeva won a silver medal for the Central Asian nation at the Tokyo Games on Tuesday, and then predicted she would go down in the country’s history.
“I was in shock because it’s the first Olympic medal in the history of the Turkmen people. It’s the first medal, which I won. No sport in Turkmenistan has had a medal, not one medal,” the 21-year-old Guryeva said. “I think I’ve entered the history of Turkmenistan by winning a medal. I’m so in shock.”
Guryeva lifted a total 217 kilograms in the 59-kilogram category, edging Mikiko Andoh of Japan for second place. Kuo Hsing-Chun of Taiwan won gold by lifting 236 kg.
Guryeva, who calls Kuo her “idol” and copies her training exercises, finished in 28th place at the 2019 world championships while competing one weight category higher. On her coach’s advice, she used the one-year Olympic delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic to reset, dropping down a class and training harder than ever.
“When the pandemic began, I didn’t have a chance of qualifying,” she said. “In October, I dropped down and started training. And I went to the Asian Championships in Uzbekistan, lifted 211 total, and then I got the chance to go to the Olympics. And then I started training even harder to get this medal.”
Guryeva will return home to a country that has often had little contact with the outside world but is trying to carve out a name for itself in the world of sports. The gas-rich nation sent two medalists to the Soviet Union’s Olympic teams for the 1956 and 1960 Games but success has been rare since.
Hosting the 2018 weightlifting world championships at a lavish new sports complex in the capital, Ashgabat, was one step toward raising the country’s profile. Turkmenistan’s authoritarian president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, is a fan of cycling and the country was scheduled to hold the track cycling championships this year, too, but they were moved because of the pandemic.
The Turkmenistan government says it has not had any cases of COVID-19 but has made vaccinations mandatory.
For Kuo, the victory was about completing a set of major championship medals. The Taiwanese lifter finally added Olympic gold to her four world titles.
“I have all the pieces together. Now I am very happy,” she said through a translator.
Andoh lifted a total of 214 kg for bronze despite what she later revealed was severe pain in her feet. When she finished the competition, she fell to the ground on stage with a smile and was helped away by her coaches.