This article was produced in association with Ashgabat 2017.
Ashgabat, capital of the central Asian Republic of Turkmenistan, will explode onto the world sporting stage in September when its gleaming new Olympic Complex hosts the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games.
With a series of test events successfully completed, the city now looks forward to opening its doors to athletes, official and supporters from more than 60 countries and to writing a fresh chapter in the history of Asian sport.
Many observers of the international sports scene also believe that the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games will be the first of many major events to be held in Ashgabat’s world-class facilities.
The Games were awarded to the city by the Olympic Council of Asia back in 2010 and the intervening seven years have seen a flurry of progress which has seen one of the world’s most elaborate and ambitious sports infrastructure projects go from dream to reality.
The Turkmen nation has worked tirelessly with some of the best brains in world sport to develop and hone the administrative and event management skills required to seamlessly deliver an event which may not be well known in the West, but which is of global scale and magnitude.
Ashgabat 2017 will be the second edition of the united Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. The first was held in Incheon, South Korea, in 2013, while the Asian Indoor Games had already been held three times before the agreement to add the martial arts element.
The result is a compelling sporting proposition expected to enthral a local audience hungry for martial arts action as well as millions more watching television and online coverage across Asia, Oceania and beyond.
The Games represent a milestone for sport in Turkmenistan under the leadership of President Garbanguly Berdimuhamedow.
Image: The Opening Ceremony of the Asian Weightlifting Championships (Laurel Photo Services)
The country, which is bordered by Iran and Afghanistan to the South, the Caspian Sea to the east and Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, is a former Soviet State that has undergone a transformation since independence in 1991.
It’s significant natural hydrocarbon resources, which account for around 60 per cent of Gross Domestic Product, have provided a revenue stream which has been invested in modernising the country’s infrastructure and seen Ashgabat redeveloped as a sparkling showcase city of modern hotels, brilliant white and marble office and ministerial buildings, fountains and monuments.
And sport was quickly identified by President Berdimuhamedow as a positive force in the development of the country and its people after he took office in 2007. The role of sport as a positive force is summed up in the motto of the 5th
Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, chosen after being submitted in a contest by Kumush Allabaeva, a teacher in the language department at the Turkmen State Institute of Architecture and Construction: Health. Inspiration. Friendship.
The sheer scale of AIMAG 2017 marks it out as one of the most significant international sports event on this year’s calendar. The inclusion of countries from Oceania has increased the number of participating nations to 61 with some 5,500 athletes due to take part in 21 sports.
The athletes housed in the Games Village will be supplemented by 1,750 team officials, 1,170 technical officials and around 700 dignitaries while members of the OCA family, 350 press representatives and 800 broadcast staff will be housed in spectacular new five-star hotels.
The games programme, which gets under way on September 15 – a day ahead of the opening ceremony – offers a varied menu of Olympic and non-Olympic sports with seven martial arts featured. They are ju-jitsu, kickboxing, kurash, muaythai, sambo, taekwondo and traditional Turkmen wrestling.
Beyond martial arts the programme includes Futsal – indoor football – tennis, short course swimming, bowling, cycling and basketball’s exciting and fast-growing 3×3 format.
Intriguingly dance sport and chess also feature on the schedule to round-out the programme.
Following the success of a test event series, AIMAG 2017 will be the hard-launch of the Ashgabat Olympic Complex to the world. The community of world-class facilities, built on former industrial land around the existing national stadium which has been replaced by a state-of-the-art 45,000 capacity venue which will host the AIMAG Opening and Closing Ceremonies, is spectacular in vision and delivery.
All but two AIMAG competition venues are within the Ashgabat Olympic Complex.
Built at a cost of around $5bn (€4.5bn), it appears that no expense has been spared and no detail has been overlooked.
In addition to the main stadium, the complex comprises 15 competition venues including the Main Indoor Arena, the largest of the competition venues with a capacity of 15,000. Located in the south of the AOC, the venue with host three combat sports – wrestling, belt wrestling and traditional wrestling. In April 2017 it hosted an exhibition basketball event at which a Harlem Wizards performance was followed by a Turkmenistan v Turkey match.
The 5,500-capacity Martial Arts Arena will host the sambo, kickboxing and kurash competitions. Already well established, the Martial Arts Arena hosted events in 2016, including the Asian Ju-Jitsu Championships, International Belt Wrestling Championships and the Asian Sambo Championship.
As part of the Inspiring Ashgabat test event series in April 2017, the MAA hosted the Asian Kickboxing Championships.
Among the jewels in Ashgabat’s sporting crown is its 6,000-capacity Velodrome, designed and built to the highest standards with key materials for the 250-metre track imported from Finland. The facility, which was completed in 2014, is widely expected to lead to a bid to host major world track-cycling events in the future.
The Indoor Athletics Arena has a capacity of 5,500 while the 10,300-seat Ice Palace, which will stage the Futsal competition, is one of two venues – along with the Equestrian centre – not part of the complex.
In all, the Ashgabat Olympic Complex, which also includes its luxury hotels, training venues and a monorail linking all the facilities and venues, is one of the most compact, convenient and thoughtfully designed and built projects of its kind anywhere in the world.
And for the people of Ashgabat, the facilities came to life in April during a series of three significant test events under the ‘Inspiring Ashgabat’ banner.
The Senior Asian Weightlifting Championship, the Asian Kickboxing Confederation (WAKO ASIA) Championships 2016-17, and the Central Asian Short Course Swimming Championships were held concurrently as part of the Series and tickets were free of charge to encourage the public to visit the new facilities.
Ahead of the events, chairman of the 5th AIMAG Executive Committee, Dayanch Gulgeldiyev, said: “It is a great honour to have two Asian Championships taking place in the Ashgabat Olympic Complex. These are very prestigious events which will set the bar very high for the Games in September.” He added: “This is the first time multiple venues will be operating simultaneously and it will be a great occasion for spectators to fully enjoy the Olympic Complex.”
Mohamed Jaloud, General Secretary of Asian Weightlifting Federation commented: “We are delighted that the biggest event of our competition year will be taking place in Ashgabat. It is a great chance for athletes from all over Asia to familiarise with the venues and the city ahead of the Games in September.”
The Martial Arts Arena hosted the Asian Kickboxing Confederation (WAKO ASIA) Championships 2016-17 between April 26-30 with athletes from up to 20 countries competing over five days. The competition includes 27 categories for men and 10 for women which will feature in the Ring and 28 categories for men and 16 for women on the Tatami. Nasser Nassiri, president of the Asian Kickboxing Confederation (WAKO ASIA) and vice-president of WAKO (IF), declared: “The Ashgabat Olympic Complex has outstanding facilities including the Martial Arts Arena, ready to host the biggest ever Asian Kickboxing Championships.”
The importance of the Inspiring Ashgabat Series was emphasised by Mick Wright, chief operating officer of the 5th AIMAG Executive Committee, who said: “Having major international events taking place in the Ashgabat Olympic Complex is extremely important to test operational readiness for the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games by simulating Games-time operations.”
Volunteers at the heart of the Games
Volunteers will play a major role in ensuring the success of Ashgabat 2017 and recruitment for the biggest ever volunteer movement in Turkmenistan was launched in February. The volunteers, known as ‘First Stars’, will be expected to inspire their country through the Games-time experience and will be the first point of contact and the face of the Games.
At the launch of the programme, chairman of the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games Executive Committee, Dayanch Gulgeldiyev said: “We are looking for the best eligible students from across Ashgabat who will make our great nation proud.
“We want Ashgabat 2017 to have the greatest volunteers who will not only help deliver the Games in September but also demonstrate the warm and wonderful hospitality of our great nation. They must be ready to inspire.”
The programme will include up to 10,000 generalist and specialist volunteers from the host country who will be instrumental in making the Games a huge success. Volunteers are vital in ensuring the smooth running of the Games whilst demonstrating their helpful, friendly and warm hospitality to athletes and spectators from across the world.
Wright summed up the importance of volunteers when he said: “Volunteers are the difference between good Games and great Games. Over the last six months and at our recent test events, our volunteers have been phenomenal and I believe they will make us proud during the Games.”
Image: Kickboxing at the Martial Arts Arena in the Ashgabat Olympic Complex (Laurel Photo Services)
To ensure that Ashgabat 2017 makes a positive impression from the very beginning, globally-known firm Balich Worldwide Shows has been hired to produce the opening and closing ceremonies. Polimeks, which built the Ashgabat Olympic Complex, will be responsible for the delivery of the ceremonies.
The Games will be an historic moment for Turkmenistan and the appointment of the highly-experienced specialists is an indication of the organisers’ determination to deliver the best ever AIMAG. Balich Worldwide Shows is an Italy-based firm that creates and produces large-scale events, from Olympic Ceremonies to national celebrations.
The Balich team’s Olympic experience includes the iconic ceremonies for Torino 2006, Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016 (produced by Cerimonias Cariocas 2016) and the flag hand-overs of Salt Lake City 2002, London 2012 and Tokyo 2020.
Marco Balich, chairman of Balich Worldwide Shows, said: “We are so happy to bring our Olympic expertise to Ashgabat 2017 within its Olympic Complex which is an astonishing site, featuring excellent buildings and infrastructure and high level facilities and technologies.”
The Ceremonies will be held at the Ashgabat Olympic Stadium. The 45,000-seat venue located at the heart of the complex is designed to leave a long-lasting legacy for Turkmen sports, especially as a football and athletics venue.
The stadium has already become an icon of the city thanks to its unique look and the towering statue of the Akhal-Teke horse, a traditional Turkmen symbol.
Main image: the Martial Arts Arena in the Ashgabat Olympic Complex (Laurel Photo Services)