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Communique: The Winds of Change

Owen Evans traveled to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan, in July.

Turkmenistan is a relative unknown on the sporting stage and is looking to transform its global reputation by hosting the world’s biggest events.

Formerly a part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, Turkmenistan borders the Caspian Sea on one side and Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Afghanistan on the other. It only celebrated independence in October 1991 and, since then, it has been in a quandary as to how best to invest the vast wealth it generates from significant natural gas reserves.

The country also suffers from an image problem. A 2013 Amnesty International report said Turkmenistan was in a state of “near total repression”, and that “all individuals in Turkmenistan are expected to report any criticism of the state to the authorities and conversations about politics simply do not take place openly”. The Human Rights Watch movement has the country only slightly better than North Korea in terms of treatment of its own people.

I visited last month for the PWA (Professional Windsurfer’s Association) World Cup event in Turkmenbashi, situated at the western tip of the country on the Caspian Sea. The city itself is named after the first leader of the independent state, Saparmurat Niyazov, who among other things renamed the months of the year to his family names, banned ballet, outlawed beards and erected a giant gold statue of himself in the capital that rotated to always face the sun.

The PWA World Cup was taking place at the Yelken Yacht Club, which had been built by Turkish construction firm Polimeks, which has plants dotted all around the country.

Polimeks will be key to the country’s sporting future. As well as the Yelken Yacht Club – and the world’s largest Ferris wheel in Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital – it signed a deal in 2012 to build the second phase of the Olympic City, also in Ashgabat.

The Olympic City project, expected to cost in the region of $5 billion, is set to be completed before the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Art Games. It includes facilities such as 15,000-seat indoor arena, which is more or less finished, a further 3,000-seat arena, the world’s biggest capacity velodrome, a 12,000-capacity athletes village, VIP and media hotels and much else besides including a monorail linking all venues and facilities.

I was given an idea of the country’s top-down support for sport on the morning I arrived, as current president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov paid a personal visit to the PWA World Cup’s opening ceremony, leaving every road blocked for the entire morning and myself and a fleet of other windsurfing reporters stuck in Turkmenbashi Airport – also built by Polimeks in 2010 – for a couple of hours.

Speaking to the racers at the event, they appeared to be very impressed by the facilities that compared favourably with other World Cup hosts on their global tour. The only problem for the thousands of locals who turned up was the lack of wind, meaning there could be hours before any action to get excited about took place.

The Asian Indoor and Martial Art Games will be a test case for Turkmenistan to bid for the Asian Games in 2023 and, if that runs to plan, you can be sure the country will soon be challenging Azerbaijan to be the first central Asian host of the Olympic Games.

“The nation should be using events like the PWA World Cup to work out how people like to watch sport and what entertainment they should put on around the event,” said Arkin Pekdag, Polimeks general manager of the Yelken Yacht Club. “However, it seems that the president liked it very much.”

In a country where the president’s opinion counts for quite a lot, that backing for sport bodes well for the next generation of the country.

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