Turkmenistan wants back in with the UCI

It feels like we've seen this one before...

Serdar Berdimuhamedov, the new and improved dictator of Turkmenistan, sits at his modest desk, flanked by three laptops, three bluetooth mouses, three touchscreen tablets and two enormous flags. All this ergonomically correct Business Efficiency, while also staring deep into your soul and looking like a wax figurine of himself. How does he do it?!

Iain Treloar
by Iain Treloar 02.08.2023 Photography by
Turkmen state media
More from Iain +

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. 

Al Shafar in a meeting with Berdimuhamedov. Screenshot: Watan Habarlary

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).

Monorails! Marble! Millions and millions of dollars! The Ashgabat Olympic Village, folks.
A view inside Ashgabat Velodrome. Image: Junek Velodromes

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: 

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. 

A totally organic group bike ride through the streets of Ashgabat.

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.

What did you think of this story?