Turkmenistan: Asian Games doping taints sporting ambitions
Wrestler Rustem Nazarov is suspected of using a substance often used to disguise doping.
In an embarrassing blow to Turkmenistan’s sporting ambitions, a wrestler from the country has been disqualified for doping while competing in the ongoing Asian Games in Indonesia.
The Olympic Council of Asia, or OCA, said on August 24 that Rustem Nazarov had been found to have taken furosemide, a diuretic that is one of the most common banned substances used by cheating sportsmen trying to disguise doping.
The case could cause particular awkwardness for Turkmenistan, as the OCA had warned in advance of the Asia Games that disciplines especially scourged by doping could be expelled from future competitions. Nazarov was the first instance of suspected doping to be detected in this edition of the Games.
Nazarov, 24, was competing in the men’s freestyle 57 kilogram category but failed to make it past the first round through to the quarterfinals after being beaten 12-8 on August 19 by India’s Sandeep Tomar.
Athletes from Turkmenistan competing in international competitions endure an especially strong degree of pressure as President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has of late made the pursuit of sporting prestige a top priority.
On paper, the authorities are committed to combating doping. In March 2017, Turkmenistan inaugurated its own National Anti-Doping Agency, or NADAT. The newly created body was modeled to World Anti-Doping Agency requirements and tests are routinely sent to the WADA laboratory in Doha for verification.
More grimly, independent media have reported that athletes suspected of doping have even been sentenced to time in jail. RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, reported in January that at least four people were accused of taking banned substances during last year’s Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Ashgabat in 2017.
“They were jailed. Everybody talks about [belt wrestler] Ali Allaberdyev. They gave him 12 years,” one source in the Interior Ministry told Azatlyk.
Around the same time that report emerged, Berdymukhamedov fired the head of the State Committee for Sports, Toily Komekov, who is reported by independent media to have previously served as an officer in the Ministry for National Security, the successor agency to the KGB. Komekov has since been appointed Turkmenistan’s ambassador to Kazakhstan. On the same day, on January 25, the president fired the deputy prime minister for sports, Sapardurdy Toilyev.
Both dismissals were officially described as routine cadre reshuffle, but the sports-themed coincidence was notable.
AFP news agency noted that there are precedents of Turkmen athletes being busted for drug-taking. Wrester Umurbek Bazarbayev was found in 2015 to have taken an anabolic agent called mesterolone metabolite while competing at a world championship event in the United States. And Yelena Ryabova was disqualified for two years after dehydrochloromethyltestosterone was detected in her test sample after she competed in a 200-meters heat at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow in 2013.
Wrestling is by all accounts particularly riddled with doping. Athletics-focused news website Inside the Games reported on August 20 that six of the 10 positive results detected at last year’s games in Ashgabat were from wrestlers. It is not publicly known if any of those positive results are related to the athletes that Radio Azatlyk says were subsequently jailed.
Despite the government placing such a heavy emphasis on sports, Turkmenistan has never managed to win medals in either the Summer or the Winter Olympic Games.
So Nazarov’s transgression puts an additional dampener on a competition that had seen some rare good news for Turkmenistan.
Earlier this week, weightlifter Kristina Shermetova won silver in the women's 53-kilogram class, getting only narrowly squeezed out by Hidilyn Diaz from the Philippines. And then on August 22, Shyhazberdi Ovelekov got the bronze in the men's Greco-Roman 87-kilogram category.
In the past, Turkmenistan’s lack of success in sporting competitions has required state media to be a little creative in its accounts.
Much against the historic trend, for example, Turkmenistan placed first during the 2016 Asian Sambo Championship, which was held in Ashgabat that year. But as the opposition-linked Gundogar website discovered after a deep dive into those results, that achievement was rendered possible by the fact that only Turkmenistan was able to field competitors in many categories, making their multiple victories a mere technicality. That notwithstanding, state media declared the result a roaring triumph.