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A 17-year-old volleyball player from Kazakhstan (before you search Google, it’s a former Soviet republic) is coming under fire, but it’s not because of her athletic skills. It’s because of her looks 

Critics say Sabina Altynbekova, who emerged as a media star during the 17th Asian Women’s U19 Volleyball Championship in Taipei this month, is so beautiful that it’s a distraction to the sport.

“It is impossible to work like this,” Nurlan Sadikov, coach of the nation’s under-19 team, told Tengrin News in a quote translated by the Daily Mail. “The crowd behaves like there is only one player at the championship.”

Fans across Asia — and, around the world — have taken to the Internet, smitten with Altynbekova. YouTube videos showing her warming up, high-fiving her teammates or just standing around, have received millions of views.

The Straits-Times reported that Taiwanese fans were holding Kazakhstan flags and arriving an hour early just to get a glimpse of Altynbekova.

The six-foot Altynbekova plays for Kazakstan’s U-19 volleyball squad and the sudden move to center stage has left members of her own team slightly peeved. Despite all the attention, Altynbekova did not actually play very much.  Cameras however, were trained on the bench rather than the action for much of the competition as Kazakstan finished 7th in the tournament. 

Whether or not Altynbekova is beautiful is a matter of opinion of  course. She has a long neck, round eyes, full lips, long legs, and shiny hair. What we have learned based on her looks is that Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) stereotyped Kazakhstan as a country of full-boned ethnically Slavic or middle-eastern women is his popular mockumentary. Clearly this not the case.

In addition to looks and athletic ability, Altynbekova is pretty smart. She is a true triple threat. Her mother told the Kazakhstan newspaper Vesti that the volleyball star went to a boarding school for gifted children and she hoped her daughter would attend law school.

It’s cool to see new and interesting people come forward onto the world stage – diversity is always welcome – but in this case, let’s get back to the game and the final score. Because in a sports story that’s what is important. What Altynbekova does off the court is another story.

Fortunately, Altynbekova seems to get what’s at stake. Following the barrage of photo collages made by fans, and even depictions of the teen as an anime-style cartoon, she made a plea for fans to stop posting about her on social media websites.

“I was flattered at first but it’s all getting a little bit much,” Altynbekova said. “I want to concentrate on playing volleyball and to be famous for that, not anything else.”

Are we so shallow that a woman or any person is told they ‘can’t’ or should not do something based on their appearance? And for those who say if sports don’t work out (Altynbekova has been called the Anna Kournikova of volleyball) she can always fall back on a modeling contract, have they considered that she might fall back on her intelligence and be a business woman or a brain surgeon?

In the meantime, let’s let this talented volleyball player grow up and follow her dreams away from the cameras.

July 31, 2014
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