In news from Turkmenistan that brings me absolutely no pleasure in reporting (OK, maybe a little): the governing body of cycling – the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) – and the reclusive central-Asian dictatorship are patching up their relationship following a visit by UCI vice-president Osama Al Shafar.
According to Turkmen state media – an institution known for chronic oversharing of meetings that the UCI might prefer kept off the public record – Al Shafar visited the Turkmen president, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, in late June.
There, according to an official account, Al Shafar communicated the “continued interest of the UCI in expanding traditional cooperation with our country”, and said that Turkmenistan’s record as a sporting nation constituted “a reliable guarantee that world tournaments will be held here at the highest level”.
Meanwhile, Berdimuhamedov claimed that the country has “all the conditions” for holding major international competitions, and is “ready to consider the possibility” of offering up the fancy new indoor velodrome it had built in the Ashgabat ‘Olympic Village’ (which has never hosted an Olympics).
All of which might sound like a mundane enough piece of sporting democracy, if it wasn’t for a very long convoluted back-story that has been the source of some capital-d Drama over the last few years. In brief points:
- In 2018 the UCI awarded the 2021 Track World Championships to Ashgabat.
- In 2020 the UCI stealthily gifted its “highest distinction”, the UCI Order, to the exceptionally loopy then-dictator, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov (Serdar’s father).
- This award prompted a steadily escalating backlash against the UCI, on account of the North Korea-grade oppression of minorities, media, and political opposition in Turkmenistan.
- Meanwhile, the UCI Management Committee mainstay Igor Makarov – a gas Titan of Industry who is currently sanctioned in five countries due to his perceived connection with the Russian regime in the context of the illegal invasion of Ukraine – had substantial business interests in Turkmenistan, which led many to question how that might hypothetically influence the awarding of a Track Worlds and Berdimuhamedov’s UCI Order.
- The UCI maintained it had done nothing wrong, until …
- In April 2021, the Track Worlds were abruptly moved away from Turkmenistan due to concerns about COVID – despite Berdimuhamedov offering free vaccinations of the participant’s choice and simultaneously not acknowledging the existence of COVID at all within the country.
- Lappartient, meanwhile, was dealing with the extended ripples of his connection with Berdimuhamedov. Once mainstream French media caught wind of it, he was frequently forced to defend the ethics of the award, claiming that he’d been boldly building diplomatic bridges with the dictator.
- In 2022, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov retired, with his much less musically-inclined son Serdar
installeddemocratically elected (😉) in a landslide. Don’t worry, though! Gurbanguly still wields all the power behind the scenes!
- Lappartient, lobbying for the Presidency of the French National Olympic Committee in mid-2023 – to go along with the ten other jobs he has – apparently decided that it was better to finally disavow Turkmenistan to strengthen his campaign. In doing so, he made the extraordinary claim to Le Monde that “I gave [Berdimuhamedov] a medal. I told him it was the highest honour, but it wasn’t … it is a medal that we had, that we had engraved on the back, which is worth perhaps 50 euros.”
- Lappartient won the election, taking his job count up to 11. It is not clear how big an influence his admission about having tricked a ruthless dictator with a fake medal – and then maintaining a false narrative about it for years – had in the voting.
- Oh, and also, Igor Makarov gained dual Cypriot citizenship in exchange for millions of dollars in investments on the island in 2011, then renounced his Russian citizenship this year. He now appears semi-regularly in weird, generic sponsored content targeting cyclists (oh look, another one!)– perhaps an SEO play to push The Bad Stories down the Google search results.
Up to speed? Good.
Given Lappartient and Makarov seem to be trying to keep a low profile on the Turkmenistan front, it’s not all that surprising that they’re giving the country a wide berth. But it is notable that Turkmenistan is prepared to accept an olive branch from Al Shafar, who is also the president of the Asian Cycling Confederation.
Turkmenistan has made sportswashing one of the key components of its international outreach, hosting the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in 2017 and building the marble-covered, monorail-featuring, US$5 billion Olympic Village for the occasion (with some assistance from Makarov, whose company won construction contracts for parts of it). At the Tokyo Olympics, the country won its first ever Olympic medal – a silver in women’s weightlifting – and was approaching the 2024 Games optimistic for more, only for two of its leading lights to return doping positives.
Outside of mixed international sporting results in little-known tournaments, Turkmenistan’s other great legacy for the sporting world has come from the pay-to-play sphere of Guinness World Records – feats like longest single line bicycle parade (1,995 participants) and largest cycling awareness lesson (3,246 participants).
That’s one way of curating a country’s prestige, but it’s a manufactured one that is eased by oppression. In the context of Al Shafar’s visit to Turkmenistan, it explains why the Berdimuhamedovs are continuing to court international bodies like the UCI, who bestow both sporting and political legitimacy.
Those carefully worded Turkmen government statements after the fact are also notable in what they don’t say – in how they choose not to highlight the fact that the country had a Worlds and then lost it, or tactfully choose to ignore the fact Lappartient is on record admitting to duping the President.
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