Milad Karimi, the rising new senior from Kazakhstan who made the floor final at last Worlds, gave an interview to Informburo. He talked about the training conditions of the national team, the salaries, the offer he got from Qatar last year and his plans for the future.
Q: Milad, this year went amazingly for you! You became a huge sensation at a World Cup and won silver in Doha, then became the biggest Kazakhstan’s hero at the Asian Championships where you won the country’s only bronze. And at the World Championships in Montreal, you managed to do what our gymnast haven’t been able to for a long time – you made an apparatus final. And you’re only 18 years old. Are you happy with how you did this season?
A: Absolutely. I’ve achieved everything I wanted to. Moreover, if we’re analyzing the World Cup, I wasn’t expecting to win a medal in Doha, I went there just to compete, to get experience because I only started competing for the senior national team in 2017. But I ended up finishing in second on floor and the difference with the first place was very small. Tang Chia-Hung from Chinese Taipei got 14.366 and I got 14.266. The judging was definitely not favorable to me. Worlds? In Montreal, I just gave my hundred percent even though I couldn’t even think that I’d have a chance to get into the floor final. The competitors were too great, but then they started getting injured one by one.
Q: Did the attitudes towards you in Kazakhstan change after such great success? You’re the 8th best gymnast in the World on floor now, after all, and only because of your international achievements this sport started to show life signs again in our country, even they’re weak.
A: Other guys and I were always told the same thing: if there will be medals, we’ll create good training conditions for you. Great, I gave results in 2017, why hasn’t anything changed? For example, we have really bad conditions in Almaty. When it snows, it becomes impossible to train in our gym in the Kazakh Academy of Sports and Tourism – we can get seriously injured because it’s too cold in the gym. So it means that in winter we don’t have a place to train properly, we’re only doing conditioning because it’s not comfortable to train fully clothed in our only gym. It’s just wrong. Other countries, on the other hand, are improving in winter: they have warm gyms and good equipment and go to competitions in Spain where they can stay for a vacation after the competition. While we’re just uselessly waiting for summer to come. We only go to camps abroad right before the competitions. We don’t have camps where we could just work on the elements, polish our skills, improve conditioning, learn from the leading countries which would be just priceless. For example, the British do joint camps with the Japanese in Spain. We really lack something like that.
Q: Honestly, I didn’t expect to hear all this from you.
A: I just don’t understand how they can demand medals from us for which we allegedly are supposed to get better conditions later if even in summer it’s impossible to train properly at the Kazakh Academy of Sports and Tourism. There’s practically no light in the gym in the evening. You’re swinging on the high bar, blink for a second and can miss the bar with your hand. We can’t see anything. And we don’t have a doctor present during practices even though artistic gymnastics is full of injuries. Any injury requires ice immediately. But we don’t have it. We have nothing! We have told about all these issues to the management multiple times! But we hear the same thing over and over: you just train, win medals – and we’ll create the conditions for you. With such attitude, Kazakshtan will continue not having decent results internationally.
Q: Have your parents tried to look for sponsors for you?
A: Not yet, even though it would be great to have such support. You ask this organization and they finally give you humane conditions – give you a modern gym, sends you on a vacation so that you could recover properly because we’re working all year round. Or you ask for medications and they give them to you. Because our management only gives us vitamins for children, and we have to spend our own money on the supplements that we really need and they’re very expensive. And we have to spend money not just on the medications. For example, I seriously injured my neck at the last Asian Championships. I flew home and asked the management to pay for the tests. They said – go ahead and pay for it yourself, we’ll fully reimburse you later. Ok. I paid my own money to the doctors, brought all the receipts to the management. Time passes, no money in my bank account. So then I gave them an ultimatum: “I won’t train until you give me everything you owe me”. So they immediately transferred 50,000 tenge to me [around $130*]. So now they think that fame got into my head because I’m always complaining. But I just want to have humane treatment for me and the other guys, so that they would really give us decent conditions. We’re all from simple families. For example, I live in a rented apartment with my parents in Almaty. And I give them a part of my salary because they need my help. Of course, our coaches are scolding us for that, saying that we should spend our money on ourselves. But these are my parents, I’m always going to help them. Or another example. A guy from Uzbekistan, Daulet Narmetov, moved here and he now competes for Kazakhstan. So, he was literally living in the gym for three or four months, can you imagine? He didn’t have other options.
Q: Considering such attitudes toward artistic gymnasts in Kazakhstan, have you ever thought about changing citizenship and representing another country internationally?
A: I could move to Qatar which made me an offer in 2016, but then the local federation had some issues finding money for my contract so I came back to Almaty, even though the Ukrainian coach who’s coaching their national team really wanted me on his team.
Q: How did your management react to the Qatar’s offer?
A: I didn’t tell anyone. Even when I flew to Doha, I said I’m going to a wedding. Later, though, the Kazakh coaches learned everything and were very hurt by this. I spent a whole month without a coach, I was preparing for competitions by myself. But my father still asked the management for a salary of $3000 for me.
Q: Did they agree to pay such a salary?
A: I’m getting paid a bit more than 200,000 tenge a month now [around $600].
Q: What salary did you have before, if it’s not a secret.
A: In 2015, I was paid 15,000 tenge [$45], in 2016 – 30,000 tenge [$90], from January till May 2017 – 110,000 tenge [$333] and from June till September 140,000 tenge [$424].
Q: So, is it the highest salary on the national team?
A: No, many gymnasts are paid the same salary even though they have different results. I don’t think it’s fair. It should be that those who achieve certain results get paid more and the others would strive for this as well.
Q: Did you get a bonus for the Worlds?
A: No, we only get bonuses if we win a medal. It hurts a bit. I achieved the maximum result for Kazakhstan in Montreal. Of course, I didn’t work hard just because of money. I wanted to give a gift to my country.
Q: And you’ve done it. You’re currently in third place in the poll conducted by the National Olympic Committee, after the figure skater Elizabet Tursynbayeva and the skier Anna Shevchenko.
A: I’m very happy that the National Olympic Committee singled me out and that people gave more than 1,000 votes for me.
Q: Let’s change the negative vibe of our interview to the positive. For example, tell us this big secret: are you a foreigner? Because many people in our country can’t understand how Milad Karimi** can be born and raised in Almaty.
A: It’s very simple. My dad is Iranian, my mom is Russian. 20 or 30 years ago my father moved to Almaty where he met my mom and they got married. Then I was born. So, I’m not a foreigner. I don’t even speak Farsi.
Q: Can you tell us then how you started artistic gymnastics?
A: When I was 3,5 years old, I was brought to a competition where my cousin competed, we wanted to support her. I was a hyperactive boy, always jumping and rolling around. Tahir Rezvanovich Kashkuli, who eventually became my first coach, saw this at the competition and started talking my mom into bringing me to a gymnastics class. Of course, my mom said I was too young, then Tahir Rezvanovich said: “If you agree, your son will train with me for free”. So that’s how I started doing artistic gymnastics. All kids were paying for the classes except for me. When I was 15, I realized I wanted to spend all my life in gymnasts, to train professionally, to represent Kazakhstan internationally. At that point, I was already doing difficult routines and was ready to go from the junior national team to the senior if not for my age.
Q: When did you start setting big goals for yourself?
A: At 16, when I started getting paid. This was basically my goal – to earn money so that I could help my parents.
Q: You’ve already said that your first salary was 15,000 tenge.
A: Actually, at first I was earning 30,000 tenge then the salary was lowered to 15,000 tenge. But I was still happy.
Q: Of course! Lots of money!
A: Sure, it was enough for a public transit pass.
Q: What do you generally do in your spare time?
A: I snowboard, I don’t have time for anything else. I wake up at 6 am, go to the gym, then to school and back to practice, so I only come home at 8 pm and fall asleep right away. My head is full of gymnastics.
Q: Where are you studying?
A: At the Karken Akhmetov National Olympic Reserve School. I have three years left there and then I’ll transfer to the third year in the Kazakh Academy of Sports and Tourism. My major is coaching.
Q: Do you have idols in artistic gymnastics?
A: I do, but all of them are my competitors now. When I’m at the same competitions as them, I still can’t believe we’re competitors now. Only yesterday I was watching them on tv.
Q: Could you name them?
A: The 10-time World champion Kohei Uchimura from Japan and David Belyavskiy from Russia who won silver and bronze in Rio. On the other hand, I’m not watching anyone when I’m competing because it’s the kind of sport where everything depends just on you. You have to compete without mistakes and then you’ll get good scores.
Q: What calms you down before competitions? Surely your knees are shaking?
A: I talk to my parents, sleep a lot, tidy up my hotel room to distract myself and not to think about the competition otherwise I can burn out from the stress and compete unsuccessfully as a result.
Q: Without whom Kazakhstan wouldn’t have Milad Karimi – one of the most promising gymnasts in the world?
A: No one supported me financially. Viktor Vasilyevich Frolov’s been supporting me psychologically. He’s been coaching since the Soviet times. Many elite gymnasts trained under him. He’s the most experienced specialist in Kazakhstan.
Q: How did he come into your life?
A: I’ve already talked how I started artistic gymnastics with Kashkuli. So then, when I was in 5th grade, I came to train to the Kazakh Academy of Sports and Tourism. Viktor Vasilyevich took me in. Why did I decide to leave my old gym? Because they didn’t have strong gymnasts who I could look up to, international elites.
Q: Did you first coach Tahir Kashkuli give a lot to you?
A: Definitely. He worked me very hard, he gave me the necessary foundation. I want to thank him a lot for this. By the way, he’s still helping me. For example, he gave me a uniform as a gift.
Q: What are you dreaming about currently?
A: Olympics are my dream. I’m moving towards it despite all the difficulties. I want to give this medal to Kazakhstan so that it not only would help our national team but would create the conditions for our future generations so that they wouldn’t suffer the way we’re suffering now. But it will be hard to achieve this goal because right now I have no motivation to compete for my country’s flag. Honestly. If people would start doing something: you won a medal – here are better conditions for you, we’ll change the lights in the gym, make it warm, provide a doctor and a phsychologist for the national team, uniforms, all the medications. Then we would all have crazy motivation to compete further, to die for better results for our country. There would be more competition inside the team as well. But nothing’s changing, unfortunately. We’re only training now in order to not get out of shape. Otherwise it will be harder to compete for medals later. We have huge issues with recovering after competitions. Russia has an ideal situation in that aspect, so it’s not surprising that their gymnasts compete so well internationally. It hurts. We have no less potential than they do. So if the management will create decent conditions for us, will invest money in us, then everything will be ok. But for now we don’t have any of that. Every region is working on its own.
Q: Until when are you planning to compete?
A: I want to achieve success in the Tokyo and Paris Olympics. So, until 2024 I’ll definitely be competing.
Q: Have you thought already what are you planning to do after retiring from competing?
A: Right now I want to earn money so that I could start some business at the same time as competing. And then I could be invited to another country to coach. If I’ll get good conditions – I’ll agree, because nothing’s keeping me in Kazakshtan.
Q: And what if you get good conditions in your home country?
A: Of course then I’ll continue working for the good of Kazakhstan. Why would I leave my home if everything will be good for me here?
Q: You’re saying “While I’m competing, I want to earn money”. How realistic is this goal in artistic gymnastics?
A: There are good money at World Cups and club championships in France and Germany. You compete there every week and they pay you right away.
Q: What are your goals for the 2018?
A: I want to compete well at World Cups – not just to earn money, but to make my name known. It’s important because then the judges will give you higher scores at Worlds and Asian Games. For that, you need to shine, to constantly be on the medal stand. Then the media will start talking about you as well.
Q: The Worlds will be in Qatar…
A: I’ll try to improve my standing on floor in Doha, I want to place higher than 9th. If I’ll get into the 5th best, it will be just amazing.
Q: What about Asian Games?
A: I’ve never competed there yet, so I don’t know what to expect. But I want to win gold, of course.
*While this sum might sound too low for making a scene, keep in mind that the average salary in Kazakhstan is only about $450 and that Karimi’s current monthly salary is about $600, so this is a huge amount of money for someone from Kazakhstan.
**Milad Karimi isn’t a Kazakh name, it’s Iranian.