Silky Skills along the Silk Road
After Serik Sapiyev won gold at London 2012, he took part in a parade through Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. But this was not the only celebration in his honour in the city. He was also a guest, at what was described, as the “solemn opening” of a petrol station.
No prizes for guessing that KazMunayGas, which runs the petrol station, is a sponsor of the national boxing team. But while its commercial tactics are familiar, its structure may not be. For KazMunayGas is almost entirely owned by the government of Kazakhstan.
Like most Olympic sports, boxing was once a clash between capitalism and communism. But, since the Cold War came to an end, the world has become a lot more complicated.
State capitalism is a hybrid between two systems. Its profits are given to the state but it drives for these profits as voraciously as the most aggressive transnational corporation.
Government buildings under communism were once characterised by the architecture of functional blocks. The headquarters of KazMunayGas (above) look rather different.
There are some doubts about the long-time viability of state capitalism as an economic strategy. But as a way of developing elite sportspeople, it has considerable advantages.
The private funders of athletes have little interest in winning Olympic medals – it is the celebrity which can follows that interests them. But state corporations can benefit their “shareholders” by bringing prestige to the country in the international sporting arena.
When the state is involved, there is an incentive to invest more money in more athletes.
Kazakhstan has always had good boxers. Serik Konakbayev (above left) earned a silver medal at the 1980 Olympics. But getting into the Soviet team was highly competitive.
When the Soviet Union broke up, it created more opportunities for Kazakh boxers, and more opponents for American ones. The biggest change is that many of the post-Soviet nations then adopted state capitalism, Kazakhstan with more enthusiasm than most.
And Olympic boxing is no longer strictly amateur, so money matters more than it once did. The World Series of Boxing has twice been won by the Astana Arlans, a franchise bankrolled by KazMunayGas. The number of US teams has dropped from three to one.
Even in the worst nightmares of a Tea Party member, it is inconceivable that the United States would ever adopt state capitalism. And there are many alternatives. A common model in the West is for central government to invest directly in sports development.
Is it really un-American to shoot for the stars and stripes to be raised at the Olympics?
Kazakh boxing is like a car which drives inexorably forward – KazMunayGas is on hand to top up the petrol whenever necessary. For US boxing, by contrast, the ghostly knock of an empty gas tank can be heard. There is a danger of it spluttering to a complete halt.
Next week: Heavyweight boxing champions used to be black. Now they are white. Why?