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Sport’s best-kept secret: Turkmenistan

After decades of being hidden behind the Soviet curtain, Turkmenistan is preparing to go under the global spotlight. Kevin Roberts travelled to the country's capital, Ashgabat, to find out how they plan to use sport as a launch pad.

There’s a lot of water in the heart of Turkmenistan’s capital city. Lateral fountains flow for miles along the central reservations of its pristine major roads, lit in spectacular blue at night time.

Like so much else in this showcase city, these aquatic adornments are not simply about decoration. They are there to deliver a serious message; the city has overcome the challenges of the desert in which it sits and is now ready to take on the other challenges of the 21st century.

Ashgabat is in the south of Turkmenistan in the shadow of a mountain range, which separates it from Iran. It is a former Soviet state that became a dictatorship after independence in 1991, and even a cursory online search will tell you that the succeeding years have not seen the nation cover itself in glory.

Its record on press freedom and human rights has been compared favourably only to North Korea by one international organisation, but the presence of 45 international sports journalists in the city last week – for the inaugural 2013 International Media Sports Forum – suggests that the authorities may be taking the first steps on a journey towards international acceptance, and sport is likely to be at the heart of those efforts.

In the late 1940s Ashgabat was struck by an earthquake that levelled the city and claimed up to half a million victims. What was there before was swiftly replaced by standard issue Soviet era architecture, some of which remains.

However, today’s Ashgabat is dominated by the new, the futuristic and the symbolic. This is a city painted by two colours: green – the national colour, and white – the hue of the marble out of which so many of its official buildings, upscale apartment blocks, hotels and monuments have been fashioned. All of this is accessorised with a liberal use of gold that marks out the really important places including, of course, the domes of the Presidential Palace.

This is not a high-rise city like Dubai or Doha (high rise and earthquake zones being somewhat incompatible), but there is a similar bling quotient. Like Doha, Ashgabat has been built on carbon fuel wealth – in this case, the world’s fourth largest reserves of natural gas – and with that money comes a new-found wish to extend the international profile of a nation, which also has neutrality enshrined in a UN Charter.

Which brings us to Azat Muradov, who was the youngest secretary-general of any national Olympic committee (NOC) when appointed to his current role in 2003.

It is possible to make an argument for Muradov having one of the most exciting jobs in world sports right now, and a glance along the swathe of city where the first phase of the Ashgabat Olympic Zone tells you why.

In 2017 the city will host the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, and to the casual observer it looks as if it could happily do so well before then. The project includes a 45,000-seat stadium along with the 15,000-seat indoor arena, which is more or less finished, a further 3,000-seat arena, the world’s biggest capacity velodrome, tennis centre, aquatics centre, practice facilities, a 12,000-capacity athletes village, VIP and media hotels and much else besides including a monorail linking all venues and facilities.

It’s all being built by the Turkish company Polimeks at a total cost of around $5 billion and has been described as sport’s best-kept secret.

Muradov is naturally delighted at what is being created and the potential for his country to establish itself as a host of major sports events. He understands that his NOC and his country are on a steep learning curve, but says that learn is exactly what they plan to do.

It is more or less certain that a successful 2017 Asian Indoor Games will lead to a bid for the Asian Games themselves, an event which is bigger than the Olympics in terms of the number of sports on the programme.

Beyond that, Muradov won’t be drawn about the specifics of the nation’s sporting ambitions, but the scale of investment and national branding ambitions of Turkmenistan’s rulers suggest that an Olympic bid is certain to be considered.

The money is there to stage a bid and to host the Games if successful, and the process of bidding for and staging international sports events will inevitably mean a media mirror being held up to the country in a way which will highlight those areas of political and personal freedoms where it may not currently live up to all expectations.

This, they say, is a country at the beginning of a journey. Sport can help take it to its destination.

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