London 2012 - Kazakh judo hopeful driven by family pride
Judo is more than a sport for Maxim Rakov. It's a way of life for the world's top-ranked judoka and his entire family on the windswept steppe of Kazakhstan.
"You could say that we are a dynasty," the 26-year-old former world champion said as he prepares for his Olympic debut.
Rakov was trained by his father, a Soviet youth judo champion. His two younger brothers also compete and Rakov hopes his five-year-old son will also, one day, become a champion.
"My parents were grafters from a simple family," said Rakov, who currently tops the International Judo Federation's world rankings in the under 100 kg category and is one of Kazakhstan's main gold medal hopes for the 2012 London Olympics.
"My father gave me an unbreakable character and a passion for hard work. Perhaps you could even call it fanaticism."
His dark blond hair closely cropped, Rakov trains in a three-storey sports centre and hostel in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan. Pristine white judo robes hang out to dry on balconies in the early spring sunshine.
He says he was attracted to the sport for its culture of discipline, respect and self-defence.
"It teaches you respect for your elders, as they have in Japan. Before you step onto the carpet, you must bow to your opponent," he said. "You also aim to carry these qualities into your everyday life."
Rakov watched the 2008 Beijing Olympics at home after a shoulder injury ruled him out of the competition. A year later, he was world champion, after defeating Dutchman Henk Grol in the final of the 2009 World Judo Championships in Rotterdam.
He identified both Grol and Japan's Takamasa Anai, second and third respectively in the world rankings, among his main rivals for gold in London, as well as Russia's Tagir Khaibulaev, his conqueror in the 2011 World Judo Championships final in Paris last August.
"I think there will be 10 or 12 people in with a shout," Rakov said. "It's the kind of sport where everything can literally be decided in seconds. You leave a gap somewhere, and that's it. If you fall, that's it. There is no way back.
"Every sport is difficult in its own way. With us, there is simply no margin for error."