Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Afghanistan's First Mixed Gender Team to Take on Ultramarathon 

Kubra and Arzoo train in the hills around Kabul
Completing an ultramarathon is an extreme challenge even with the best preparation. For three young athletes training in Afghanistan, it is almost impossible.

For the last few months, Kubra, Arzoo and Mahdi have been battling insecurity, street harassment and pollution as they run through the streets and hills around Kabul. In February, they will attempt to become the first mixed gender team from Afghanistan to participate in an international running event.

The 250 km race, RacingThePlanet: Sri Lanka, is organized by the 4 Deserts Race Series, and starts on 14 February 2016. It’s a 250 kilometer / 155 mile, 7-day, stage race in which competitors must carry everything they need for the race on their back. The average backpack will weigh 9 kilograms/ 20 pounds. A group of international competitors from more than 20 countries will compete alongside the team from Afghanistan.

Kubra, Arzoo and Mahdi will race together under the name Team Sahra, which means ‘desert’ in Dari. They hope to repeat the 2015 success of Nelofar and Zainab from Team Asma’i, who were the first Afghan women to complete an ultramarathon. Both teams were selected, trained, and supported by Free to Run, a non-profit organization that uses sport and fitness to empower women and girlsfrom conflict-affected communities.

Team mate Mahdi
Kubra, 25, was so inspired by the performance of Team Asma’i last year that she started running on a treadmill. It did not take long before she began wanting more, “I thought why should I be limited just to a treadmill in a gym,” said Kubra. “Why can’t I run on the streets and roads? Why can’t I run outdoors?”

After Kubra was selected by Free to Run for RacingThePlanet: Sri Lanka, she began training with her teammate, Arzoo. “We run early in the morning to avoid street harassments and bad eyes of men,” explains Arzoo, a 23-year old newcomer to the sport. “We run side by side in order to be protected and we encourage each other so that everything is fine.”

Bringing Mahdi, the third and only male team mate, onto the team was part of a deliberate strategy to provide safer conditions for Arzoo and Kubra. However, for the Founder of Free to Run, Stephanie Case, the reason for a mixed gender team went beyond security alone. “We felt it was important to include a male on this year’s team, not as a chaperone, but as an equal member of the team,” says Case. “Having a mixed gender sports team from Afghanistan sends a very important message.”

Mahdi has already proven he is willing to go out of his way to support Afghan women in sports. Last autumn, he ran alongside Nelofar to complete the (unofficial) Kabul Marathon. An aspiring coach, Mahdi has high dreams for his fellow runners. “They are great and I want to make them the best,” says Mahdi. “We should learn and teach all Afghan [people] that there is no difference of rights between men and women.

Terrain near Kabul where team members train
Even with the strong support from Mahdi and Free to Run, Kubra and Arzoo still face barriers in their community. During one of their recent training runs, a disapproving bicycle rider hit Kubra on the face. Kubra and Arzoo both kept running after the incident.

Team Sahra’s race entries have been sponsored by RacingThePlanet, a leading retail store for all outdoor equipment and gear who is also the title sponsor of the race. Regular race updates will be provided on the 4 Deserts and Free to Run websites.

Donate to support the Afghan team here.

Related posts:
Empowering Afghan Youth Through Skateboarding 
White Silk Road - Snowboarding Afghanistan
Uzbek Football & Tashkent's New Football Stadium
Cricket in Afghanistan and Tajikistan 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Sidney Jackson - An American Boxer in Uzbekistan

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Sidney Jackson, far left, at the Fortuna club, Tashkent 1925
Another remarkable and little-told story of Central Asia concerns Sidney Jackson, who was born into a poor Jewish family in the Bronx, New York, in 1886.

He started boxing when he was 12 and turned professional at 18. After winning several featherweight titles in the USA, he joined a US demonstration boxing tour to Europe in 1914.

Because of a thumb injury sustained during a fight, Jackson was unable to continue the tour. So, with a boxing pal, he decided to travel, setting off to Russia in mid-July 1914, totally unaware of the tragic events that would soon unfurl in Europe.

After war broke out, he was advised by the US Consulate in St Petersburgh that the only way out was to travel to Tashkent, then try to reach the Arabian Sea via Afghanistan and Persia. Jackson arrived, penniless, in Tashkent in August.

Unable to buy a fare out of Tashkent, and given that boxing was an unknown sport in Central Asia, he worked for several years as a tailor at the Yaushev Garment Making Firm, and made friends in Tashkent's diverse expatriate community. (Jackson had done a tailoring apprenticeship in the USA).

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Sidney Jackson with his pupil, the writer Georgy Sviridov and Sviridov's son Yurka
After the October 1917 Russian revolution and the subsequent civil war,  Jackson volunteered as a private in the International Brigade fighting in a motley band of Germans, Koreans, Hungarians. Chinese, Persians, Czechs, Serbs, Tatars and the rest against local anti-communist rebels, known as basmachi and the British expeditionary force in Central Asia under Major-General Sir V. Malleson.

Sidney Jackson participated in battles throughout Central Asia and the Caucasus and was decorated several times.

According to Jim Riordan's article in The Journal of Sport History, "in the winter of 1921, as the civil war died down, Jackson returned to Tashkent to work as sports instructor for the Universal Military Training organization that had been given charge of all sports amenities in the country.

Jackson was assigned to the Fortune Sports Club where he began to introduce boxing to the people of Central Asia. He soon made a boxing ring out of old ship rope and set it up in the city’s central park, patched up the only three pairs of gloves (filled with seaweed) he could locate, and made new ones out of leather and horse hair he obtained from the local slaughter house. With that material and thick felt he also made punch bags and balls. 

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Drawing of Sidney Jackson by Uzbek artist Rifkat Azihanov
But he did not confine his activities to promoting boxing - though his club was indeed the very first boxing club in the whole of the new Soviet state; his experience in other sports enabled him to found clubs and organize facilities for lawn tennis, swimming, track and field, basket-ball, soccer, tug-o’-war and unarmed combat, all of which he coached himself."

As a Soviet sports authority later confirmed, "Until that time, not one of these sports was well known in those parts; Jackson was truly the founder of [organized] sport in Central Asia."

Again, quoting from Riordan, "His Uzbek team won the USSR Boxing Championships several times and produced a number of Olympic, European. and Soviet medal winners. Not just local Europeans like Nikolai Anfimov and Vladimir Shin, but Central Asians like Abdulla Kadyrakhunov. lsold Mullayev. and Zakir Abdulkadyrov, all of whom won medals at the European championships. 

His most famous pupil was the Soviet Union’s best-ever boxer. the middleweight Valeri Popenchenko, Olympic champion and winner of the Barker Cup for the most technically skilled boxer at the Mexico (1968) Olympics. Jackson also coached the most successful Uzbek boxer, Rufat Riskiyev. who became USSR champion, world amateur title-holder (Havana,1976) and silver medalist at the Montreal Olympics in 1976".

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Sidney Jackson with team preparing for a competition against Norway, 1958
As well as devoting himself to building sportsmen and women of Uzbekistan, after the birth of his two children, Jackson went to university. He graduated with a degree in English and became a professor at the prestigious Tashkent Institute of Foreign Languages in the early 1950s.

Many anecdotes about Sidney Jackson still echo in Tashkent's boxing halls. People say that Jackson always preferred the climate of Tashkent and its distance from Moscow. However, in 1928 the Soviet leadership brought him to Moscow to meet and interpret for the visiting American film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. A devotee of boxing, Fairbanks was invited to join the judges panel for bouts held in Sokolniki Park on 21 July. Jackson was delighted at the opportunity.

Sidney Jackson passed away in Tashkent in 1966. In a demonstration of the respect in which he was held, thousands of citizens lined the streets of the city to bid farewell to this wiry, white-haired man who arrived by chance to a remote outpost of the Russian empire and stayed. He never returned to the USA. His daughter, Paina, still lives in Tashkent.

Once again Jim Riordan's sums it up: "The American whom fate cast upon Russia’s shores in the time of Tsar Nicholas II lived through two world wars, two revolutions, civil war, famine, mass terror, the rule of Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev - and survived it all. 

More than that: the barely literate Jewish bruiser from the slums of the Bronx raised himself to become college professor of English, Merited Coach of the USSR, and hero who stands forever in Russia’s boxing hall of fame". 

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Sidney Jackson's grave, Bodkin cemetery, Tashkent
Since 1967 the Sidney Jackson Memorial Boxing Tournament is held in Uzbekistan to commemorate Jackson's remarkable contribution to Uzbek sport.

Related posts:

Langston Hughes: An African American Writer in Central Asia in the 1930s
Arminius Vámbéry: a Spy in Central Asia
The Greek Community of Uzbekistan
Duke Ellington's Kabul Gig 1963 
Uzbek-Korean Connections 

Source: An American in Russia's Boxing Hall of Fame by Jim Riordan, University of Surrey 1993

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Kyrgyz-style Polo: Ulak Tartysh or Buzkashi

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The winning team! Image: Valerie Thompson
Seattle-based  globetrotter Carol Willison travelled with Uzbek Journeys to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in autumn 2015.

With fellow travellers, she watched a traditional horse game - ulak tartysh, also known as buzkashi - in the village of Don-Aryk, not far from Bishkek.  This is her story about the match.

I have lived with a sport enthusiast for the past 44 years and have watched just about every type of sporting event.

I have seen balls of some type, either thrown, carried or hit into and over nets, across goals, into hoops, and rolled across greens. Some of these games are quick moving and action packed and some could put you to sleep.

Last September, in Kyrgyztsan, I saw a sporting event I did not even know existed. It is called Ulak Tartysh or Buzkashi, which means literally "goat dragging".  (In Uzbekistan it is called Kupkari). This sport is popular in most of Central Asia and involves players on horseback and a goat's carcass.  The object of the game is to get the goat carcass across your goal, a bit like polo, minus the sticks, ball and British refinement.

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The rider in front has just grabbed the goat carcass. Image: Valerie Thompson
We were in Kyrgyzstan, in the small village of Don-Aryk in the Chon Kemin Valley, about 70 kilometers east of Bishkek.  We went to a dirt field with small stands made of old tyres at either end - the goals. We sat on folding chairs on a bank above the field for better viewing.  They have erected a portable tent to keep us out of the sun - very thoughtful and resourceful. We felt a bit like we are at Ascot, well sort of!

The players lined up to present themselves before the game started, along with the referee. The players seemed so young and the horses were beautiful - well kept and obviously prized. They bowed to us and raced to the field. Then the carcass of a goat, minus the head, and sewn together at the neck, is tossed out onto the field and the game begins.

The horsemen hang off their saddles, seemingly only by their legs, and sweep the goat off the ground and thunder off towards their goal. Everyone is in hot pursuit, either to defend him or to try to take the goat away. The most skilled players manage to hang on to the goat - not with their hands, but by wedging it between their leg and the horse, holding it there in a vice grip.  This enables them to manoeuvre their horse with both hands and to fight off those trying to get the goat away.

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The rider front left now has the goat carcass between his knee and his horse to keep his hands free. Image: Valerie Thompson

It seems to be a "no holds barred" type of game, in which players try to pull their opponents off their horses and dislodge the goat using just about any means they can. We yell, scream and cover our eyes while plumes of dust rise on the field.

At times we hold our breath and the referee seems to be in as much danger as the players. In all of this confusion, the horses seem to know what is expected of them, and we realize that it would take a lot of training to make a horse a successful player in this game. Players seem to be more concerned about any injury to their horses than to themselves.

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A mini dust storm as riders try to prise the carcass from a player. Image: Carol Willison

After a hour or so the game comes to end with the victorious team getting the goat to the goal the most times.  The players line up again, we all cheer and wave, the victors smiling broadly, and then they gallop off back to work. This was a midday break and fun, but it is only just that - they still need to get back to earning a living.

We are all a bit dusty but exhilarated to have witnessed a unique local sport. There is a rumor that this was also a way to "tenderize" a goat before cooking, but I can't image that this could be true. The carcass is pretty mangled - Julia Childes would be appalled!

Carol participated in a bread making course in Uzbekistan and wrote about that experience: Khiva: Bread Making Master Class

Related posts:
Kupkari Spring Tournament in Samarkand
Kyrgyzstan: Hunting with Birds of Prey
5 Reasons to Visit Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan: Uzgen's Eternal Treasures