By rights, juking the stats in sports should not be possible or, at the very least, easy. In Turkmenistan, however, statistics and facts all too often occupy different worlds.
State media has been in raptures about the outcome of the 2016 Asian Sambo Championship, a martial arts contest that concluded in Ashgabat this week with Turkmenistan coming top of the medals table. As the government’s Golden Era website reported, Turkmen fighters won 21 gold, 26 silver and 19 bronze medals.
Sambo is a form self-defense combat that draws on techniques from judo and wrestling and was developed in the 1930s in the Soviet Union and has since spread internationally.
With the the 2nd edition of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games set to be held in Turkmenistan in 2017, this event has been seen as a good test of the country’s ability to both host and compete effectively in an international sporting contest.
“[The tournament] allowed us to determine our country’s readiness for the upcoming continental games that will involve sportsmen from 62 countries in Asia and Oceania,” the Golden Era noted.
According to Golden Era, more than 400 competitors from over 20 countries took part in the Sambo tournament.
“Today we can say with certainty that the ‘test’ has been passed with flying colors,” Golden Era remarked.
But foreign-based Turkmenistan news website Gundogar begged to differ and described the competition as a typical instance of playing around with facts.
For a start, the level of success attained by the Turkmen squad suggested something odd was afoot. Out of 67 fighters in the national team, all but one secured a medal. The strike rate was little worse with other countries. Runner-up Uzbekistan had 57 people in its team — 55 won medals. Kazakhstan had 45 competitors — 43 of them won medals.
“Take the figures from the leading trio in the table — 164 medals out of 169 competitors. That is not very competitive, to say the least,” Gundogar writer Vladimir Karakhan wrote.
That is hardly surprising though since, contrary to what state media claimed, Gundogar reported that only 262 contestants from 15 countries actually took part in the tournament.
Spare a thought for the only Turkmen sambo fighter not to get a medal, Zhavlanbek Madaminov. He was dispatched to a knockout so comprehensive by Uzbek opponent Ilhomjon Yudashev that he was unable to even return and compete for the bronze.
Then again, the medal winners don’t seem to have worked too hard for their reward.
“The most remarkable case was the ‘victory’ of Chinar Turayeva in the female, 40-kilogram weight category. She came first and got a gold medal and the title of Asian champion without even coming out onto the mat, since she was the only sportswoman competing in this weight category,” Karakhan reported.
Karakhan said another Turkmen contestant won silver simply by taking part in one fight and losing. There were no other rivals.
As the Gundogar writer noted, the farcical lack of competition sadly undermined the efforts of the genuinely talented Turkmen sportsmen that were required to actually sweat to earn their prizes. Karakhan named many such competitors, but lavished special praise on Tejen Tejenov, who became champion in his category by winning three straight fights.
Gundogar also notes disparagingly that state media reports also fabricated the presence of international media from thin air — an accusation attested to by the complete lack of distinctive, on-the-ground coverage of the event.
“Other than mentions of these inexistent, ghost sambo fighters, you will find no interesting details of the kind that correspondents normally send from these events,” Karakhan wrote.
None of this bodes too well for next year’s Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games and the hopes that the competition will put the country on the map.
Turkmen officials are pathologically terrified of speaking to any foreign reporters, including about sports, as was demonstrated when a CNN crew was invited to a media event in Ashgabat last year to showcase preparations for 2017.
“We asked to speak to Turkmenistan officials about their drive for sport and their campaign — the ‘Month of Health’ — that coincided with our visit. We were negotiating past midnight to speak to them, but as our trip went on, our interviewees dropped out,” CNN report Amanda Davies reported. “So just how is Turkmenistan — a country seemingly so unaccustomed to international visitors, let alone the media — going to cope with 8,000 athletes and officials from around the world when it hosts the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in 2017?”
Competitive sports may not in the grand scheme of things be especially important to the general wellbeing of the population, but the inability of Turkmen officialdom to acknowledge basic reality is far from reassuring. In essence, not a single scrap of information that emerges from the halls of power in Turkmenistan — be it about wheat harvests, economic growth, mortality figures or even how many people smoke cigarettes — can be taken at face value.
And yet that is precisely what international institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, do on a regular basis, all the while eagerly encouraging the Turkmen government’s penchant for opacity and dishonesty.