IOC turns a blind eye to Turkmenistan using sport to legitimise tyranny
The city of Ashgabat in Turkmenistan is famous for two characteristics. It has the highest concentration of marble buildings in the world and is capital of one of the most repressive regimes in the world. The two are not unrelated: allpowerful central Asian dictators with natural resource wealth are able to construct ostentatious monuments to themselves with little concern for their citizens.
But the current Turkmen leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has grown tired of building with marble. On Sunday the 60-year-old dentist’s newest vanity project will be unveiled: the latest edition of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. As its population continues to endure severe poverty, Turkmenistan has spent a reported US$5bn (£3.74bn) on infrastructure to host this niche sporting event.
Last week in Lima the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, gave a grandiose speech pitting the movement he leads against the forces of nationalism and isolationism sweeping the globe. “We stand for peace, diversity, tolerance and respect,” he said. “These trends are a call to action for us. More than ever the world needs our Olympic values.” At the same time athletes from more than 60 of his member nations were travelling to one of the most repressive countries in the world for an event run by the IOC’s Asian affiliate.
A resource-rich nation spending its fiscal reserves on extravagant international events is nothing new but the scale of repression in Turkmenistan is extreme. The former Soviet state is among the worst in the world in that regard; Freedom House gave Turkmenistan a score of three out of 100 in its annual report, describing it as “a highly repressive authoritarian state where citizens’ political rights and civil liberties are almost completely denied in practice”. Only Syria had a lower aggregate score in the report, while Turkmenistan found itself in the esteemed company of Eritrea, North Korea and Uzbekistan.
“Turkmenistan is the most repressive government in the postSoviet region,” says Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and central Asia division at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “This is a government that permits absolutely
no criticism, no matter how mild, of government actions, policies or social agenda.”
Yet on Sunday athletes from across Asia and the Pacific are expected to take part. Countries as diverse as China, Kiribati, Palestine and Timor-Leste will be represented, contesting sports including swimming, cycling, e-sports, chess and several martial arts. One first-time participant at the Games is Australia, with the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) eager to strengthen sporting ties with Asia.
The Observer put four questions to the AOC’s president, John Coates, regarding the propriety of Australia’s participation, with the phrase “human rights” or similar appearing five times. The administrator ignored these questions and did not include the phrase once in his response, instead offering platitudes. “Participating in these Games represents a wonderful opportunity for our young and developing Australian team of 18 athletes to gain invaluable experience with some of the best athletes in the world in their sports,” said Coates.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was also contacted for comment. A spokesperson said that as the AOC is a nongovernment body, the department “does not participate in its decisionmaking”. The spokesperson added that Australia had raised concerns during Turkmenistan’s last appearance before the United Nations’ human rights forum and would do so again at the next opportunity.
Preparations for the Games have coincided with further repression. HRW and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) have reported the mass demolition of homes as part of an urban renewal project, with no more than nominal compensation for residents. “The Games will last all of 10 days but people left with inadequate or no housing will suffer for years to come,” TIHR’s executive director, Farid Tuhbatillin, said recently.
Human rights groups have also observed renewed attempts to control public life. “We might have thought Turkmenistan could not get more repressive but, as these Games draw near, the government is tightening the screws even further,” says HRW’s Denber. “The government deeply fear what will happen when Turkmen come into contact with foreigners. They worry that the government’s secrets about how repressive it is and how poor the social conditions are will suddenly spill out. It is doing everything to prevent that from happening.”
Local sources have reported that Ashgabat has in effect been sealed off from the remainder of the country, with only public transport and taxis permitted to enter the city. “Raids to identify untrustworthy social elements have been launched,” said Tuhbatillin, a former political prisoner. “Police are detaining prostitutes, the homeless and those suffering from substance abuse.” Citizens with criminal records have reportedly been banned from going outside.
The Guardian,the Observer’s stablemate, was initially given accreditation to cover the Games but 11 days before the opening ceremony it was revoked on the grounds of “the overwhelming response”. Repeated requests to be reinstated went unanswered by the Games’ organisers while the intervention of the British embassy in Turkmenistan was unsuccessful. The Guardian is aware other international media outlets have had their accreditation revoked in similar circumstances.
The Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) and each participating National Olympic Committee are recognised by the IOC, whose charter requires the organisation to take “all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media”. Indeed last year the IOC introduced an online mechanism for journalists to report violations of press freedom.
Repeated requests have been made to the OCA as to how hosting the Games in Turkmenistan and the revocation of media accreditation were consistent with the charter, but received no response. An IOC spokesperson sought to shift responsibility: “The Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games are an independent sporting event that does not fall under the jurisdiction of the IOC.”
Denber said: “HRW has sent five letters to the OCA since 2016, and it has not replied to a single one. The OCA is a member of the IOC and is obligated to uphold the principles of the Olympic Charter. Instead, by its silence, the OCA is accepting the complete perversion of the Olympic values.”
The intersection between sport and politics has a long history; the IOC founder, Pierre de Coubertin, hoped that the modern Games would improve political relations between states. While the IOC may profess that its events are free of political influence, recent Olympics in China and Brazil belied such claims. With football’s next two World Cups in Russia and Qatar respectively and Beijing hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, sport is in a new era of politicisation – after almost three decades of relative post cold war neutrality. The attraction of these mega events to such nations is obvious.
“Turkmenistan is hosting these Games to boost its international prestige,” says HRW’s Denber. “Turkmenistan has been a closed country for many years and some in the government believe this will lead to international prestige, which may in turn improve the government’s domestic legitimacy.” The Turkmen exile Tuhbatillin said bluntly: “Any dictatorial regime wants to show the world its positive aspects.”
There may also be financial motives for Turkmenistan’s hosting of the Games. “In a highly corrupted regime, the construction of facilities for this sporting event constitutes a source of bribes for the Turkmen government,” says Professor Sebastien Peyrouse of George Washington University. “The preparation of these Games has been a new and considerable source of personal enrichment for the president and his entourage.” Several of the Games’ major infrastructure projects were awarded to a Turkish construction company with close ties to Berdymukhamedov.
With fewer countries interested in hosting such expensive events – witness the carefully staged-managed process that gave Paris and Los Angeles the 2024 and 2028 Olympics respectively – this may not be the last time Ashgabat hosts a major sporting extravaganza. The IOC and its brethren are increasingly desperate for wealthy nations willing to spend billions for little financial return, and trivial concerns such as human rights are becoming even less relevant.
As North Korea continues to fire rockets over Japan, its central Asian equivalent – the comparison is common – is staging a quirky sporting event that is less likely to register in the international consciousness. Even at higher profile events, such as the Qatar 2022 World Cup, reporting about human rights will eventually subside and attention switch to the pitch. While spectators remain transfixed by the sporting action, the IOC, OCA, Fifa and other opaque sporting institutions will continue to award their events to distasteful regimes.
“Every state has a degree of responsibility when it sends its representatives to a country where human rights are worth nothing,” implored the Turkmen activist Ruslan Myatiev. The IOC, too, must share the blame. Otherwise – 2032 Olympics in Ashgabat, anyone?
Turkmenistan: a brief history
Consisting of vast swaths of desert between the Caspian Sea and borders with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran, Turkmenistan has long been a wild frontier. Turkmen tribes inflicted heavy defeats on Russian forces during the 1800s, and were the last of the Central Asian ethnicities to be brought under Moscow’s control. Until the end of the Soviet era in 1991, Turkmenistan was tightly governed by the central administration.
Newly independent Turkmenistan was ruled with an iron fist by Saparmurat Niyazov, who styled himself as Turkmenbashi (“father of the Turkmen”) and renamed the days of the week after relatives. While the isolationist Niyazov quickly developed an international reputation for his eccentricities, which ranged from installing a golden statue in his image that rotated with the sun to building a penguin sanctuary in the desert, his quirks obscured brutal repression.
Niyazov’s death in 2006 facilitated the rise of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who acceded to the presidency early the following year. While observers were initially heartened by suggestions that Turkmenistan would shed its isolationist past, Berdymukhamedov has consolidated power and maintained the status quo. Turkmenistan’s appearances in international reporting remain largely limited to quirky stories, whether a new airport designed to handle 17 million passengers per year (annual visitor numbers in 2015 were just 105,000) or propaganda footage of Berdymukhamedov in his action man guise.
Despite Turkmenistan’s human rights record, it has largely been ignored by Western governments. “Turkmenistan (and Central Asia) is not a strategic region for the West,” said Professor Sebastien Peyrouse. “The impact of the limited foreign pressure that has been exerted is weakened by rival interests, particularly those seeking to develop economic relations with Turkmenistan.” The European Union is expected to soon ratify a partnership agreement with Turkmenistan, human rights record notwithstanding.
The Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games is the vanity project of the Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who has diverted £3.74bn on infrastructure for the event. Composite: Alamy Stock Photo; TASS via Getty Images; imageBROKER/Alamy Stock Photo; AFP/Getty Images
Ashgabat, which will host the Games, has the highest concentration of marble buildings in the world. Photograph: Arthur Greenberg/Alamy Stock Photo