If you've been checking out the gold medal count recently, chances are you've noticed the sky blue flag with the yellow sun and bird hovering at the No. 8 slot. That would belong to Kazakhstan, the ninth largest country in the world, and one of the least populated countries at around 15 million people. This year has been its best-ever Olympic Games.
With six gold medals and a bronze under its belt and five days left in the 2012 Olympics, Kazakhstan is placed eighth, ahead of Germany and Australia for gold medals. In terms of gold medals per capita, Kazakhstan ranks fifth worldwide. Not bad for a country that only began to compete in the Olympics in 1994, two years after it became independent.
No doubt decades of Soviet rule influenced not only architecture, education, and government in Kazakhstan, but also its effective approach to sports training.
So what, exactly, is Kazakhstan medaling in?
The horsemeat advantage
Ilya Ilin took the gold and broke a new world record for the men's 94 kilogram weightlifting class when he hefted 418 kilograms, 12 kilos more than he lifted in Beijing when he won gold for total lifted. The 24-year-old two-time Olympic champion attributes his success to kazy – horsemeat sausage.
Svetlana Podobedova, who left her home country, Russia, after she was cut from the national weightlifting team for doping in 2007, narrowly beat Russia's weightlifter in the 75 kilogram class.
Maiya Maneza won the women's 63 kilogram weightlifting class. At age 26, she set a new Olympic record of 245 kg when she added a 135 kg clean and jerk to her 110 kg snatch. (She took gold medals in the 2010 Asian Games, the 2010 World Weightlifting Championships, and the 2009 World Weightlifting Championships).
Teenager Zulfiya Chinshanlo won the women's 53 kilogram division with a new world record, lifting 226 kg. That was Kazhakstan's second gold of the 2012 Olympic Games.
On the sidelines, a small birther controversy has erupted. There are mixed reports on where exactly Maneza and Chinshanlo were born. Some claim that they were born in China or Kyrgyzstan. The Central Asian nation has responded pretty quickly and adamantly to reports that Maneza and Chinshanlo were born and raised in China.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev rewarded the pair with $250,000 each and hailed their wins as "proud glories" from "outstanding daughters of our nation."
Running and cycling, too
The Central Asian nation has topped the charts in other sports too.
Olga Rypakova picked up a track-and-field gold for Kazakhstan in the women's triple jump. It's a unique event that combines a hop, a step, and a flying leap. The 27-year-old's 14.98-meter effort was enough to surpass the favorite, Olha Saladuha of Ukraine.
And 38-year-old Alexandre Vinokourov cycled past Colombia's Rigoberto Uran in the final stages of the men's road race to take the gold, leaving Norway's Alexander Kristoff finishing third on July 28. Kazakhstan and Mr. Vinokourov are no strangers to cycling: Among the athlete's accomplishments are four stage wins of the Tour de France, two bronze medals at the World Championships, a silver at the 2000 Summer Olympics, and the fact that he has been a known challenger to Lance Armstrong in the past.
Happy with his time of 5:45:57, he then announced he was considering retiring.
But Kazakhstan won't likely be retiring from racking up the medals any time soon. Watch the upcoming boxing and wrestling matches for more of the shiny stuff, as Kazakhstan bests its 2008 Beijing performance. (Already, Danyal Gajiyev has taken bronze in the men's 84kg Greco-Roman wrestling category.)
Kazakhstan came home from Beijing with two golds (boxing and weightlifting), four silvers (judo, weightlifting, and wrestling), and seven bronze medals (boxing, judo, taekwondo, weightlifting, and wrestling) to finish 29th overall.