Will a $5B Olympic Complex Bring a Dictatorship Its First Medal?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Despite its big-spending government, Turkmenistan hasn’t had much luck at reaching the podium.
Few would deny the Soviet Union was a sporting powerhouse in its time. Take the multiple gold medal–winning Soviet hockey team, for instance, or the country’s national basketball squad, which bested the U.S. during the Summer Olympics in both 1972 and 1988.
After the empire’s collapse in 1991, the Soviet legacy of strong institutional support for athletics — a key part of the Kremlin’s Cold War policy — trickled down to the 15 former republics. It’s partly why Russia remains a world leader in hockey, while Ukraine has recently cultivated some of the best boxers in the world. Even tiny Tajikistan, the poorest of the former republics, has managed to clinch two bronze medals, a silver and a gold.
One Central Asian nation, however, hasn’t been so lucky:
Since gaining independence, Turkmenistan is the only former Soviet republic that hasn’t won a single Olympic medal.
Not for lack of trying though. With a population of 5.6 million, it’s fielded a team at every Summer Games since 1996. Nor is enthusiasm missing: In 2015, Turkmen officials declared April to be an annual “Health and Happiness” month, meant to coincide with World Health Day. The following year, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov publicly berated his sports minister after Turkmenistan’s national team returned from the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro empty-handed, claiming the bureaucrat “could not justify the trust of the nation.”
Even if some secretly dream of sporting glory — the country’s sports minister has floated the idea of an Olympic bid — it’s unclear whether the government’s interested in that level of attention.
Stranger still, the government has spent enormous amounts of cash to prove it’s capable of handling major sporting events. Such was the case with its Olympic complex, built — at a suspected cost of $5 billion — in time for Turkmenistan to host the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games last September. That’s in addition to the $2 billion falcon-shaped airport in its capital, Ashgabat, unveiled around the same time. “On the elite level,” says Catherine Putz, managing editor of The Diplomat, “Turkmenistan likes to behave like a country of very, very rich people.” Look no further than the white marble and golden fixtures covering Ashgabat, often described as eerily pristine.
There’s just one problem, according to democracy watchdog Freedom House: “Turkmenistan not only is a police state or country of personality cult, but also a country of selective lawlessness.” Dependent on massive deposits of natural gas, the country’s been hit by the worst economic crisis since independence thanks to slumping energy prices. To help pay for its massive infrastructure projects, the government reportedly dipped into citizens’ pockets by cutting social benefits and squeezing out “voluntary” financial contributions. Meanwhile, unemployment and shortages of basic goods have been rampant. Minimum wage is estimated to be less than $70 per month. Turkmenistan’s megaprojects, says Putz, are “not done for the average Turkmen — that’s for certain.”
Even if some in Turkmenistan secretly dream of sporting glory — the country’s sports minister recently floated the idea of an Olympic bid sometime in the future — it’s unclear whether the government’s even interested in that level of attention, says Luca Anceschi, senior lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow. Just consider the paltry 1,000 tourist visas it issued in 2015, he adds, or the regime’s apparent disinterest in better integrating even within Central Asia: “Turkmenistan is unique in terms of isolation.”
So if you’re holding your breath to see a country’s green and red flag being waved under Olympic rings, you might be better off rooting for North Korea.