With only one silver medal to its name, Turkmenistan does not have a distinguished Olympic history, but that does not stop it from celebrating the world’s most important sports event.
On June 23, International Olympic Day was marked in Ashgabat with races at a multipurpose stadium and “demonstration performances” of 13 disciplines.
These types of events are not a mere celebration of sports for their own sake. They are intended to spur “the formation of a healthy lifestyle among the younger generation,” as state media puts it.
The agenda has a more hard-edged, public relations angle though. The Turkmen state aspires to benefit from the reputational glow that can be bestowed on a country through the winning of prizes or at least hosting major events. In a word: sportswashing.
On June 24, President Serdar Berdymukhamedov met with the visiting vice president of the UCI, the Union Cycliste Internationale, the world governing body for sports cycling. Berdymukhamedov spoke to Osama Ahmed Abdullah al-Shafar about the efforts that Turkmenistan has made to popularize cycling, by which he meant the mass rides that thousands of government workers and young people are occasionally made to perform under duress.
The goal here is for Turkmenistan to eventually host some or other UCI event. Berdymukhamedov was quoted by state media as saying that Turkmenistan stands ready to offer up the indoor cycle track at Ashgabat’s Olympic village. al-Shafar was in turn said to have agreed, speaking of Turkmenistan’s “impeccable” record of hosting large-scale sporting competitions.
As it happens, Turkmenistan had been due to host the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in October 2021, but those plans were dashed by COVID-19, which Ashgabat reacted to by sealing off the country for the best part of two years.
The UCI has historically been eager to cultivate this Turkmen relationship, and its executives have been happy to engage in patronizing behavior while doing so. In October 2020, David Lappartient, the head of the organization, bestowed what he called the UCI’s highest award of merit upon then-President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (father of the current incumbent) in recognition of his supposed contribution to the sport.
Lappartient has latterly begun lobbying to be appointed president of the French Olympic Committee and has decided accordingly that it might be time to dispense with the whiff acquired from passionately kissing the rear of a dictator. And so, speaking to French daily Le Monde in May, he poured scorn on the order he gave Berdymukhamedov.
“I gave him a medal. I told him it was the highest honor, but it wasn’t … it is a medal that we had, that we had engraved on the back, which is worth perhaps 50 euros,” Lappartient told Le Monde in remarks translated into English by cycling news website Escape.
Le Monde’s report offers an interesting glimpse into the mechanics of sportswashing and how Turkmenistan has leveraged opaquely documented channels to advance the agenda.
The article dwells on how Lappartient has over the years proven an enthusiastic defender of Turkmen-born Russian tycoon Igor Makarov, a member of UCI’s management committee with a decades-long history of business activity in Turkmenistan. Makarov usually visits Turkmenistan on business related to his energy investments there, but he has also often made a point of flagging up his intimate ties with the cycling world. It can be stated with a high degree of confidence that he would have played an active role in pushing for the UCI Track Cycling World Championships to be hosted in Ashgabat.
There is little evidence that any of these shenanigans have done much to promote Turkmenistan’s dream of attaining sporting excellence on the international stage.
It does not help that sports development in Turkmenistan is liable to fall victim to the Berdymukhamedovs’ caprices.
Take the soccer scene, for example. This year, a new team, Arkadag, was created from clean cloth in tribute to an eponymous city being willed into existence by Berdymukhamedov the elder, who also happens to be known by that same honorific. To make Arkadag as strong as possible, the squads of leading rivals Ahal FK and Altyn Asyr FK were liberally raided for their top talent. The result of that decision will be observed at the AFC Champions League and the AFC Cup, the two leading Asian club-level competitions, which both kick off later this summer.
As for Arkadag, it is now topping the Turkmen premier league, having easily won all eight of its games so far.
Judging by the dispiriting news from the weightlifting world this week, beleaguered Turkmen athletes are being pushed hard to achieve desperately sought-after glory.
On June 25, opposition-run news website Gundogar reported that Rejepbay Rejepov, the 31-year-old silver medal winner in men's 81 kilograms competition at the 2022 World Weightlifting Championships, and Medine Amanova, the 17-year-old silver medal winner in the women’s 64 kilograms category at the 2023 Asian Weightlifting Championships, have been suspended for doping. The pair were seen as possible hopefuls at the Paris Games, but their participation now looks compromised.
That solitary silver Olympic medal of Turkmenistan’s arrived at the 2020 Summer Games, when Ashgabat-born Polina Guryeva won silver in the women’s 59-kilogram weightlifting category. Writing on his Facebook account, Gundogar editor Boris Shikhmuradov observes ruefully how Guryeva largely disappeared from public view after receiving a blink-and-miss-it burst of adulation from the state media machine. It does not appear that she got much support from sporting authorities.
Earlier this month, she resurfaced at the International Weightlifting Federation’s Grand Prix in Havana, an important steppingstone event for potential qualification to the Paris Games, but she failed at the first hurdle by coming in over her registered weight category.
Shikhmuradov says he is pessimistic that Guryeva can now make it.
“She cannot expect any 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 her.”
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.