bne IntelliNews – Turkmenistan: A sporting chance

With just one silver medal, Turkmenistan doesn’t have a distinguished Olympic history, but that doesn’t stop the country from celebrating the world’s premier sporting event.

On June 23, Ashgabat marked the International Olympic Day with races in a multi-purpose stadium and “performances” of 13 disciplines.

Such events are not just a mere celebration of sport for its own sake. They are intended to encourage “the development of a healthy lifestyle among the younger generation,” according to state media.

However, the agenda has a sharper PR aspect. The Turkmen state wants to benefit from the gloss of reputation that can be bestowed on a country by winning awards or at least by hosting major events. In a word: sports washing.

On June 24, President Serdar Berdimuhamedov met with the guest vice-president of the UCI, the Union Cycliste Internationale, the world governing body of cycling. Berdimuhamedov spoke to Osama Ahmed Abdullah al-Shafar about Turkmenistan’s efforts to popularize cycling. He was referring to the mass trips that thousands of government employees and young people are occasionally forced to take.

The goal is for Turkmenistan to host one or two UCI events at some point. Berdimuhamedov was quoted by state media as saying that Turkmenistan is ready to offer the indoor cycling course at the Ashgabat Olympic Village. Al-Shafar, in turn, reportedly agreed, speaking of Turkmenistan’s “impeccable” record of hosting major sporting events.

In fact, Turkmenistan was set to host the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in October 2021, but those plans were scuppered by COVID-19, prompting Ashgabat to respond by locking the country down for almost two years.

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The UCI has always strived to nurture these Turkmen relations, and its leaders have been fond of showing condescension in doing so. In October 2020, David Lappartient, the organisation’s head, presented what he believed to be the UCI’s top honor to then-President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov (father of the current incumbent) in recognition of his alleged contribution to the sport.

Lappartient has recently begun campaigning for nomination as president of the French Olympic Committee and has accordingly decided it might be time to forego the touch of passionately kissing a dictator’s butt. And so I speak French every day Le Monde In May he showered contempt on the order he had given to Berdimuhamedov.

“I gave him a medal. I told him it was the highest honor, but that wasn’t the case…it’s a medal that we had, that we had engraved on the back, and it’s worth maybe 50 euros,” Lappartient said Le Monde in remarks translated into English by the cycling news website Flee.

Le Mondes The report offers an interesting insight into the mechanics of sportswashing and how Turkmenistan has used opaquely documented channels to push the agenda.

The article looks at how Lappartient has proven over the years to be an enthusiastic defender of Turkmenistan-born Russian tycoon Igor Makarov, a member of the UCI Administrative Committee with a decades-long history of doing business in Turkmenistan. Makarov usually visits Turkmenistan on business related to his energy investments there, but he has also often made it a point to highlight his close ties to the cycling world. It is safe to say that he would have played an active role in promoting the hosting of the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in Ashgabat.

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There is little evidence that any of these shenanigans have done much to advance Turkmenistan’s dream of achieving sporting excellence on the international stage.

It doesn’t help that sporting development in Turkmenistan is in danger of falling victim to the whims of the Berdimuhamedovs.

Let’s take the football scene for example. This year, a new team, Arkadag, was created from pure stuff, as a tribute to the eponymous city, launched by Berdimuhamedov the Elder, who also happens to be known by that honorary title. In order to make Arkadag as strong as possible, the rosters of leading rivals Ahal FK and Altyn Asyr FK have been liberally screened for their best talents. The outcome of this decision will be seen in the AFC Champions League and AFC Cup, Asia’s premier club competitions, both of which start later this summer.

Arkadag are now at the top of the Turkmen Premier League and have easily won all eight games so far.

Judging by this week’s disheartening news from the weightlifting world, struggling Turkmen athletes are being pushed hard to achieve much-needed glory.

On June 25, opposition-run news website Gundogar reported that Rejepbay Rejepov, 31-year-old silver medalist in the men’s 81-kilogram event at the 2022 World Weightlifting Championships, and Medine Amanova, 17-year-old silver medalist in the women’s 64-kilogram category at the 2023 Asian Weightlifting Championships banned for doping. The pair were seen as potential hopes for the Paris Games but their participation now appears to be in jeopardy.

Turkmenistan won that only Olympic silver medal at the 2020 Summer Games when Ashgabat-born Polina Guryeva won silver in the women’s weightlifting category – 59 kilograms. Write on his Facebook account: Gundogar Editor Boris Shikhmuradov watches ruefully as Guryeva largely faded from public view after receiving a brief streak of admiration from the state media machine. It seems that she has not received much support from the sports authorities.

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Earlier this month, she reappeared at the International Weightlifting Federation Grand Prix in Havana, a key stepping stone to potential qualification for the Paris Games, but fell at the first hurdle, finishing above her registered weight class.

Shikhmuradov says he is pessimistic that Guryeva can make it now.

“She can expect no help from the National Weightlifting Federation, the National Olympic Committee, the State Sports Committee of Turkmenistan, or any of those other good-for-nothing parasites,” he wrote. “They don’t care about sports or people. Polina is great. I hope everything goes well for them.”

Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.

This article originally appeared here on Eurasianet.

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