Flying the Turkmen Flag

Kevin Roberts travelled to Turkmenistan to look at how its Olympic Complex, and preparations for 2017’s Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, are reflective of a country eagerly looking to eat at international sport’s top table.

April was a busy month for Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, president of the gas-rich central Asian republic of Turkmenistan.

While his country opened a consulate in Monaco and welcomed a Monegasque diplomatic presence to the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, President Berdimuhamedov was fulfilling a list of duties that included calling for a co-ordinated United Nations policy during the World Water Forum, and signing a $13 billion deal with a South Korean consortium for a range of trade projects. There was also a visit from India’s minister of external affairs, and 30 or so sports journalists.

This flurry of diplomatic and trade activity is evidence of President Berdimuhamedov’s desire find his nation a new place in the world order, a goal that inevitably means taking down some of the barriers that have isolated Turkmenistan since its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.

Naturally, most of the activity is driven by commercial expedience. Turkmenistan sits on the world’s six largest gas reserves and is anxious to diversify its customer base. China replaced Russia as the major purchaser of Turkmen gas last year, a move that gave fresh impetus for plans to build a 1,080-mile gas pipeline running from Turkmenistan’s Caspian Sea coast through Afghanistan and into Pakistan and India.

Amid all this high-level diplomatic and commercial activity, the visit of a party of sports journalists might seem something of a footnote at best. However, President Berdimuhamedov has assigned sport a significant role in the future of his country and has a desire to see Ashgabat host major international events; this means embracing the media, even if the closed culture which developed during and after the Soviet era means the process can be a little awkward.

Turkmenistan has invested somewhere in the region of $5 billion in its gleaming Olympic Complex that will host the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in 2017. Phase one of the project, built by Turkish company Polimeks, is complete, and from the 6,000-seater velodrome – the world’s biggest – to arenas that are linked to training halls by underground tunnels, there is no doubt they are truly world-class.

Phase two, which includes a 1,200-seater outdoor aquatic facility and luxury hotel, is more or less complete while work continues on phase three, which involves the 45,000-seater main stadium and a monorail that links all venues.

CSM Strategic, the international management consultancy arm of London-based CSM Sport & Entertainment, has been hired to develop a ‘masterplan’ for the organisation of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, which is expected to attract 8,000 athletes from 17 countries. For a nation that has never staged sport on such a scale, the decision to hire overseas expertise where it is most needed is indicative of Berdimuhamedov’s desire for progress.

Turkmenistan has significant long-term ambitions in sport and the Asian Games look almost certain to be the next target. However, the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games is perhaps the most appropriate place to start its ascent of the world’s sporting ladder. It is, after all, the event in which local talent is most likely to succeed and create a culture in which up-and-coming athletes and youngsters are encouraged to emulate them.

While Turkmenistan has yet to win an Olympic medal, its performance at recent regional events has been encouraging, with six medals at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon and 11 at the 2014 Asian Beach Games in Phuket, including the nation’s first gold, in Russian martial art and combat sport Sambo.

The world needs to see more of Turkmenistan's human face

Presidential Personality
At the 2017 Games there will be high hopes for local success, not least from the president himself whose image and personality dominates the country. That itself poses something of a problem in changing perceptions of the country in the wider world.

In Ashgabat’s Institute of Sport, a room is dedicated to pictures of the president beaming at the camera as he demonstrates his skill in just about every sport imaginable, from rally driving to horse racing. There is even a picture of him at the controls of a jet fighter.

To those whose world view was shaped outside Turkmenistan, this omnipresence and the level of control it suggests can be difficult to accept. Ashgabat itself does nothing to dispel it; its gleaming new white and gold heart of ministries, offices, apartments and monuments is visually stunning, but appears strangely antiseptic because of the absence of everyday human life. And this, for the most part, was what visiting journalists saw.

Most, but not all, for just beyond the marble halls of downtown is another Ashgabat with its rundown Soviet-era residential blocks, garages and shops. This is where the ordinary people live, where washing is strung between buildings, where satellite dishes battle for rooftop space and where citizens meet to have fun.

In a restaurant along an unpromising looking street, a well-heeled woman and her family celebrated her 50th birthday with games, karaoke, a disco, a drag queen and lots and lots of vodka. They are relaxed and welcoming and present a more positive picture of today’s Turkmenistan than mile after mile of marble ever could.

If Turkmenistan is to fulfil its potential as a sports host and see some return on its massive investment, the world needs to see more of its human face. This is what will change perceptions, and this is what will help win bids.

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