Kevin Roberts (Editorial Director, SportBusiness Group) went to Ashgabat in Turkmenistan in November 2013 to find out why it is one of the new kids on the block.
Russian billiards is all about big balls and fine margins.
Popular in both Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union, the sport challenges players with pockets only a couple of millimetres larger than balls that are significantly bigger and heavier than those of the western version; it demands a level of precision that would challenge even the leading names of professional snooker.
At first glance, Russian billiards looks very much like its western counterpart. It’s only when you get up close you begin to appreciate the differences are fundamental and rather more substantial than they first appeared.
Much the same might be said of Ashgabat, the capital of the landlocked, newly gas-rich and largely unknown Turkmenistan, where billiards clubs do brisk late-night business.
Its gleaming buildings and wide highways are reminiscent of newly affluent nations worldwide. Hotels open to overseas visitors offer a five-star experience, foreign brands advertise their wares and Mercedes cars cruise the streets.
Despite all that, Ashgabat really is different. It lies somewhat isolated in the shadow of a mountain range that separates it from Iran, and it is the capital of a nation whose record on human rights and press freedom has been compared to that of North Korea.
But things may be about to change, and sport looks set to be at the heart of efforts to open Ashgabat and Turkmenistan up to the world, albeit one small step at a time.
Late last year, 45 international journalists visited the city for the nation’s inaugural Sports Media Summit and a chance to get a sense of a country that remains a mystery to most.
Ashgabat is not a high-rise city like Dubai or Doha, but there is a similar bling quotient. And like Doha, Ashgabat has been built on carbon fuel wealth – in this case the world’s fourth largest reserves of natural gas. With that money comes a new-found wish to extend the international profile of a nation that has neutrality enshrined in the United Nations Charter.
Like other nations in its position, sport has been earmarked as a building block of a new national identity and the Turkmen government is proving to be deadly serious in its intent, as witnessed with a glance along the swathe of city where the first phase of the Ashgabat Olympic Complex is being completed.
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 Olympic Complex is 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.
When completed, the Ashgabat Olympic Zone will include a 45,000-seat stadium along with the 15,000-seat indoor arena that is almost finished, the world’s biggest capacity velodrome, a 12,000-capacity athletes’ village and much else besides including a monorail linking all venues and facilities.
It is more or less certain that a successful Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games will lead to a bid for the Asian Games themselves, an event that is bigger than the Olympics in terms of the number of sports on the programme.
The scale of the investment and the national branding ambitions of Turkmenistan’s rulers suggest that an Olympic bid will certainly be considered. The money is definitely there to stage a bid and to host the Games. The process of bidding for and staging international sports events, however, will inevitably mean a media mirror being held up to the country in a way that will highlight those areas of political and personal freedoms where it may not currently live up to all expectations.
Ashgabat is a new kid on the bidding and hosting block and those who run sport in Turkmenistan are ready for the challenge. After all, they’re used to games that require big balls and depend on fine margins.