Kyrgyzstan’s men’s and women’s national wrestling teams combined to win five medals at the 2023 World Wrestling Championship that took place from September 16 to 24 in Belgrade, Serbia. With three gold medals, and one silver and one bronze, the country finished third overall, behind only Japan and the US. Speaking of this achievement, some observers were quick to point out that the world was witnessing the making of another Asian wrestling powerhouse.
Standing behind this incredible feat of Kyrgyzstan, a small and obscure Central Asian nation, is the golden generation of wrestlers, coaching staff, and effective work of the country’s wrestling federation. In Belgrade, Aisuluu Tynybekova won her third world championship, whereas Akzol Makhmudov and Zholaman Sharshenbekov defended their titles and became two-time world champions. Three of them sit atop the ranking of the United World Wrestling (UWW) in their respective weight divisions.
Here is an Instagram post with Zholaman Sharshenbekov's celebration of his victory.
Ahead of the 2024 Paris summer Olympics, the nation’s hopes for an Olympic gold medal, which Kyrgyzstan is yet to win, medal are placed on their shoulders. Leading the quest for this coveted prize is an unlikely figure.
In a country where wrestling reigns supreme and male athletes take the center stage, Tynybekova is perhaps the most popular and definitely the most inspirational figure. In 2019, she accomplished a feat that no other wrestler from Kyrgyzstan had done before and became a world champion.
Here is an Instagram post with the mural of Aisuluu Tynybekova in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
At the 2020 Tokyo summer Olympics, which took place in 2021 due to COVID-19, Tynybekova finished second, losing in the final by a single point. A couple of months later, in October 2021, she won her second world championship in Oslo, Norway.
Tynybekova’s road to the status of the most decorated wrestler in Kyrgyzstan’s history was not an easy one. She grew up in a remote and poor village in Naryn, a cold and harsh region in the east, and did not really train due to the lack of facilities and coaching until she moved to the capital Bishkek as a teenager, an extremely late age for professional athletes to start their training.
There she met Nurbek Izabekov, who would eventually become the women’s national wrestling team’s head coach. Recalling their struggles he said: “When we were starting out, people sometimes refused us entry into gyms. When I sparred with her, people would laugh at us.”
Tynybekova is not the only star pupil under Izabekov’s tutelage. Others include Meerim Zhumanazarova, an Olympic bronze medalist and world champion, and Aiperi Medet kyzy, who finished fifth at the last Olympics and won a silver medal at the 2023 world championship in Belgrade.
The unprecedented success of Izabekov’s students introduced a major shift in Kyrgyz society. “Trainers that used to work with boys are training women in parallel. Parents are getting in touch with us. They want their children to be the next Aisuluu, Meerim or Aiperi,” Izabekov said proudly.
Since Tynybekova’s historic feat in 2019, Kyrgyz wrestlers have been on a roll, winning 16 medals at the last three world championships, including seven gold, three silver, and six bronze. Many of these medals were firsts in the country’s history. Between 1991 and 2019, Kyrgyzstan won only 9 medals at world championships, and none were gold.
Here is a YouTube video with Akzhol Makhmudov's victory at the 2022 world championship, where he became the nation's first men's wrestler to win a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling.
With less than a year left until the Olympics, people in Kyrgyzstan are keeping their fingers crossed. Their hope is for these wrestlers to shine bright on the biggest stage and continue inspiring their fellow countrymen.