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Some Winners, Many Losers, After Turkmenistan Hosts Asian Games


The lavish closing ceremony of 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Ashgabat

The fifth international Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG), hosted by Turkmenistan, have come to a close, ushered out with the same lavish pomp that marked the entire 10-day event.

In defiance of expectations, or logic, Turkmenistan’s athletes, who had never won a medal in any major international sporting event, came out on top by a very large margin.

Turkmen athletes claimed 245 medals (89 gold, 70 silver, and 86 bronze), easily outpacing 31 other teams, including China, South Korea, India, Iran, and Japan.

Amazing.

But let’s put this in perspective.

At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, China ranked third in the medal count (behind the United States and Great Britain), and at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, China ranked second (behind the United States).

In Ashgabat, at AIMAG, the Chinese team won 97 medals, ranking second (due to the number of gold medals) behind Turkmenistan.

South Korea ranked eighth in the medal count at the Brazil Olympics (21 medals) and fifth at the London games (30 medals).

Japan ranked sixth at the Brazil games (41 medals) and 11th in London (38 medals).

Yet at an Asian Games involving only 32 countries*, South Korea ranked seventh at AIMAG (41 medals) and Japan 20th (17 medals).

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov visits the Ashgabat Olympic Stadium
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov visits the Ashgabat Olympic Stadium

I don’t want to take anything away from the athletes who competed in Ashgabat and no doubt did so in good faith, giving their best efforts after years of training. But clearly some of the East Asian countries, certainly, did not send their best athletes to AIMAG.

It is also true that the “sports” events covered a broad spectrum, ranging from competitions in wrestling, boxing, and other combat sports, to dance, billiards, bowling, equestrian sports, and chess.

I do not know how many people in, say, Qatar would be qualified to compete in the rumba, jive, or salsa dance events or how many people in Afghanistan or Sri Lanka have ever seen a bowling alley.

The choice of contests was not Turkmenistan’s decision; those are simply AIMAG events.

From the very beginning, the biggest problem with Turkmenistan hosting AIMAG was that this was a vanity project of one man: President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

He does not want foreigners in his country but for 10 days he wanted the world to come and pay attention to Turkmenistan.

For years, Berdymukhammedov (or Arkadag, "The Protector," as he likes to be called) has been pushing his people to be healthy, insisting they ride bicycles, do calisthenics, or jog. But despite that and his regular appearances on state television lifting weights, playing basketball, or engaging in some other physical activities, his country had never won an international sporting medal.

So he lowered himself, and mortgaged his country’s future, by putting on a show that was designed from the start to make him feel better about his country’s “success” in international sports competitions.

Arkadag, you have a problem, a sickness.

Spending at least $7.3 billion on the construction of sports facilities for AIMAG and a new international airport in order to win 246 medals is ridiculous.

And remember, even more money was spent on support services, including caterers who were flown in or on new buses to transport visitors, so the final price tag could easily be upwards of $9 billion or $10 billion.

Athletes compete in the sambo combat event at the Asian Indoor Games.
Athletes compete in the sambo combat event at the Asian Indoor Games.

Let’s put that in perspective.

Berdymukhammedov has been pushing the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline for years now, a chance for Turkmenistan to export an additional 33 billion cubic meters of gas annually, which would bring in money Turkmenistan desperately needs.

I’m already on record as saying TAPI is not feasible as long as the security situation in Afghanistan and southern Pakistan is unstable, but that’s not the point. The point is Berdymukhammedov keeps saying TAPI can work.

The estimated cost of building TAPI, if it were feasible, is some $10 billion.

Arkadag, you just spent almost exactly that amount of money on a 10-day sporting event that most of the world did not even realize was taking place, instead of on a project you say will bring hefty revenues to state coffers for decades to come.

And now you’re counting on international financial institutions to bankroll TAPI after you threw away all that money just so you could say you hosted an international sports event and that your country won the most medals.

Team Turkmenistan might have won at AIMAG but Turkmenistan’s people lost and they are going to continue to lose for a long time to come due to Arkadag’s vanity and profligacy.

Earlier this year, Turkmenistan’s people lost the subsidized utilities -- water, gas, and electricity -- they had enjoyed practically since independence.

The government said it was because Turkmenistan had developed economically to the point where those subsidies were no longer necessary, but most believe it was to get extra money to pay for AIMAG.

State workers lost money when they had to make “voluntary” donations to AIMAG. They didn’t actually “give” the money; it was deducted from their paychecks.

People in Ashgabat lost their homes when they were demolished so that a few thousand foreigners making a brief visit to the city for the games wouldn’t have to look at old family dwellings in Berdymukhammedov’s city of white marble. Little -- usually no -- compensation was paid to the homeowners.

Traffic into Ashgabat’s center was shut off at the end of August and the “Olympic” facilities in the center were cordoned off to most of Turkmenistan’s citizens during AIMAG.

Some of the only Turkmen citizens, besides those involved in the events, who were allowed inside the security ring around sports facilities were the state-approved fans -- and most of them were required to wear state-approved national clothing that they had to purchase with their own money.

Sure, construction of the sports and other facilities for AIMAG provided temporary employment for thousands of Turkmen citizens, notably for many from areas of the country where jobs are scarce.

But that’s over and it is now difficult to see how the government could create new, badly needed jobs after spending billions of dollars on AIMAG.

Last winter in Turkmenistan, there were shortages of basic goods – flour, cooking oil, sugar, and other staples -- and after listening to Berdymukhammedov’s criticism of the country's agricultural sector just a few weeks ago, it’s a good bet this winter won’t be any better.

Where will the government find money to import food to make up for shortages?

The Turkmen people’s “Protector” just spent billions of dollars on AIMAG. And there is no foreseeable source of new revenue coming anytime for probably at least a decade.

Undoubtedly, Berdymukhammedov will declare these games an unqualified success and boast about hosting AIMAG for some time to come, but he bled his country for the opportunity to make such claims.

Based on material from RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
* Athletes from Macau (China), Samoa, and Singapore competed under the category “Independent Olympic Athletes.”

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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