Uzbekistan is a nation of sport lovers
There are two traditions ‒ indigenous and international ‒ that exist side by side and are followed with equal passion by their fans. The most famous local sport is kurash, a form of wrestling which has a history that stretches back over millennia. International sports, such as football, basketball, ice hockey and gymnastics became popular in the twentieth century. International-style boxing and wrestling also attracted a considerable following, as did Asian martial arts such as judo, karate and taekwondo. A number of Uzbek champions played in top Soviet teams, competing in the Olympic Games and other prestigious events under the Soviet flag. Since Independence, impressive local and national teams have emerged in all the major branches of sport.
Several Uzbek teams are now rated in international league tables. Individual players, too, have established reputations outside their own country. Sport receives considerable official backing, as evidenced by the widespread provision of training facilities. There is also a good organisational infrastructure, with special attention paid to youth activities. Participation in regional leagues and international competitions is encouraged. National federations and associations, affiliated to international bodies, have been formed for all the main sports. The National Olympic Committee was created in 1992, and in 1994 Uzbek national teams began to participate in the Olympic Games. They have been particularly successful in the Summer Games, winning a total of 31 medals to date (including four Gold Medals in Rio de Janeiro in 2016). They excel in contests of strength, especially boxing, wrestling and weightlifting.
The enthusiasm with which the population follows the triumphs and disappointments of their sporting heroes is part of the national culture. It is also a form of outreach, of connectivity to the global community ‒ very different from the isolation of the Soviet period. Nowadays foreign teams and foreign stars are ‘adopted’ and their careers are pored over with almost as much devotion as are those of national players. Visitors from Britain, for example, will soon discover that the fortunes of teams such as Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal (part owned by Uzbek-born Alisher Usmanov since 2007) are subject to as much critical scrutiny here as they are back home ‒ and ardent Uzbek supporters are as eager as British counterparts to acquire the insignia of their chosen club. These international sporting links, whether formal or informal, create bridges between peoples, raising awareness and knowledge of foreign countries and cultures. ‘Familiar strangers’ become friends and partners ‒ members of a notional community.
Football is the most popular sport in Uzbekistan. There are 16 professional teams in the Premier League, 18 in the First League and more in the Second League. The oldest and most celebrated is Pakhtakor (‘The Cotton Pickers’). Founded in 1956, it achieved fame as one of the best Soviet teams. It remains a top team and has become something of a national treasure, affectionately commemorated in popular songs. Two other favourites are Lokomotiv ‘Locomotive’ (founded in 2002, owned and sponsored by Uzbekistan Railways) and Bunyodkor ‘Creator’ (founded in 2005). The Uzbekistan Football Federation (founded in 1946) oversees the national league system and associated championships. In 1994 it joined FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) and the Asian Football Confederation.
In recent years the main teams have participated regularly in international matches and have started to attract well-known players and coaches from abroad. Likewise, Uzbeks players are being courted by prestigious foreign teams. Uzbek football has won an enviable reputation for good sportsmanship. In 2012, the Uzbekistan Football Federation received the highest AFC rating for ‘Fair Play’; in January 2013, it was presented with the FIFA ‘Fair Play’ Award. Individuals, too, are well regarded. The internationally respected referee Ravshan Irmatov (b. 1977) has worked with FIFA since 2003; he has been named ‘Best Referee of the Year’ in Asia several years running. In 2010, he refereed the opening match of the FIFA World Cup (between South Africa and Mexico).
Football in Uzbekistan is not a male-only preserve: the Women’s National Football championship was formed in 1996. Currently there are ten women’s teams. They compete at the domestic as well as the international level. Youth football is also thriving. Along with local clubs and teams, there are national squads for specific age-groups: Under-20 (nicknamed Oq bo’rilar ‘The White Wolves’), Under-19 and Under-18. There is a national table of rankings and awards (i.e. for ‘Best Player of the Year’, ‘Best Coach of the Year’). The youth squads come under the jurisdiction of the Uzbekistan Football Federation and are thus part of the Asian Football Confederation. They have been competing in their respective categories in AFC Championships (since 2002) and FIFA World Cups (since 2003). These matches take the young footballers to countries across Asia, giving them an extraordinary opportunity to experience at first hand other cultures and societies.
Tennis has a good base organisational base in Uzbekistan, though it has less popular appeal than sports such as football. A few Uzbeks were included in Soviet tennis teams, but the game only began to attract a national following in the early 1990s. In 1997, the President’s Cup was inaugurated in Tashkent. It was affiliated to the International Association of Tennis Professionals Circuit (ATP Tour); eminent foreign players, including the British champion Tim Henman, participated. The Cup was held yearly until 2002, but thereafter was suspended as the emphasis shifted to other activities, notably the Davis Cup. Uzbekistan first played in the Davis Cup tournament in 1994. It has continued to take part in this annual event. Currently it competes in the Asia/Oceania Zone, but it aims to reach the World Group (it has already been in seven play-offs). There are also several internationally ranked Uzbek tennis champions who participate on an individual basis in major competitions in Europe, Asia and the USA. Apart from Denis Istomin, they include Farrukh Dustov, Temur Ismailov, Sanjar Fayziev and Oleg Ogorodov.
The history of rugby union in Uzbekistan is not just a matter of sport, but a reflection of the changing political environment. The game was played in Russia before the 1917 Revolution, but banned during the early Soviet period as a symbol of ‘cosmopolitan capitalism’. After Stalin’s death it was gradually re-introduced. It gained a following in Uzbekistan and in 1962, four local teams were founded. Today, it is still a minority sport, but is attracting a growing number of players and fans. There are at present seven 15-a-side club teams and a national team. The Uzbekistan Rugby Federation (URF) was created in 2002; shortly after, it became a member of the Asian Rugby Football Union, likewise of the World Rugby Board. The current President of the URF is Senator Sodyk Safoyev (a senior Uzbek political figure, currently First Deputy Speaker of the Senate and himself a keen rugby fan). Uzbek teams have not as yet competed in a Rugby World Cup tournament, but they do take part in rugby internationals in the Asian region. As with football, enthusiasm for rugby is not confined to men in Uzbekistan. The national women’s team has been competing in international tournaments since 2008.
There are a number of Uzbek sporting personalities who have acquired international fame. One of the first was the professional road racing cyclist Jamolidin Mirgarifanovich Abdujaparov (b. 1964, of Crimean Tatar origin). His reputation as a daring, unorthodox sprinter earned him the nickname ‘The Tashkent Terror’. He took part in two Olympics, first as part of the Soviet team (1988) and then as part of the Uzbek national team (1996). He also competed successfully several times in the Tour de France; in the early 1990s, he was frequently locked in contest with the renowned French cyclist Laurent Jalabert. He retired from professional racing in 1997. In October 1998, a British punk band took the name ‘Abdoujaparov’ in his honour.
One of the most remarkable athletes ever is surely Oksana Aleksandrovna Chusovitina (b. 1975, in Bukhara). Her career as a top gymnast spans over a quarter of a century. It began in 1988 when, at the age of 13, she won the USSR Junior Nationals. She represented the Soviet Union in international sporting events until its dissolution in 1991; she then competed for the Unified CIS team in 1992, and from 1993 to 2006 for Uzbekistan. In 1999, she gave birth to a son but soon resumed her training ‒ becoming one of the very few mothers in professional sport. However, her son suffered from an acute form of leukaemia (cancer of the blood) and she and her husband (an Uzbek wrestling Olympian) decided to move to Germany so that the child could receive advanced specialist treatment; she represented Germany from 2006 to 2012. Chusovitina is the only female gymnast ever to compete in seven Olympic Games ‒ under three different national flags. In 2016, aged 41 years and 2 months, she took part in the Rio de Janeiro Games, the oldest gymnast ever to compete in the Olympics. She won many medals during her career, including a Gold Medal in 1992. She also holds the record for the most individual world championships medals for a single event (nine, on the vault).
Another notable sporting figure is the tennis champion Denis Olegovich Istomin (b. 1986, Orenburg). Originally from Russia, the Istomin family moved to Uzbekistan when Denis was a baby. Coached by his mother, he became a professional in 2004. By 2006, despite his weak eyesight (he is one of the very few elite players to wear glasses on court), he was wining victories in major international tournaments and had established himself as one of the leading tennis players in the world. His opponents have included stars such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic.
An upcoming young sportsman is Fazliddin Hasanbaevich Gaibnazarov (born 16 June 1991). This amateur welterweight has been winning international matches since 2012. In 2016 he won a gold medal at the Rio Olympics.