Authoritarianism and Sport: The 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games

Alfie Denness 7 October 2017

“Horses are the glory of the Turkmen people,” announced a narrator over footage of a dazzling array of Turkmen dancers and riders, the national flag of Turkmenistan prominent throughout. “And the symbol of high spirits and victories!”

This montage formed part of the opening ceremony of the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, held in Ashgabat, the capital of the Central Asian state of Turkmenistan. The equine focus, with horses a vital part of Turkmen national symbolism, featuring as they do in the centre of the country’s official emblem, was repeated in the closing ceremony 10 days later. A giant horse’s head, brilliantly illuminated in blue against the night sky, towered above the Saparmurat Turkmenbashi Olympic Stadium (named after the former President of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, who also renamed a town, schools, airports and even a meteorite after himself and members of his family) before shining into the striking green of the Turkmen flag at the ceremony’s climax as fireworks erupted around it. Given that the triumphant hosts had topped the medal table with an impressive 89 golds, the Turkmen government may have thought the horse’s head had indeed proved a “symbol of high spirits and victories”. In Turkmenistan, a nation whose capital possesses the highest concentration of marble buildings in the world, the authoritarian government rarely misses an opportunity to display its power, and the games proved no exception.

A former Soviet Republic, Turkmenistan has been under the rule of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedo since 2006. Amnesty International’s 2016/17 Human Rights Report on Turkmenistan suggested that, throughout the year, “Human rights did not improve, despite a National Human Rights Action Plan for 2016-2020 launched in April. Independent civil society organizations could not operate freely. Turkmenistan remained closed to independent human rights monitors”.

Another human rights NGO, Freedom House, gave Turkmenistan a score of just three out of 100 in its 2017 annual report, the same mark the organisation awarded to North Korea. That such a repressive state was chosen to host an International Olympic Committee (IOC) affiliated event has caused controversy, with a recent Guardian article accusing the IOC of allowing the Turkmenistan government to “use sport to legitimise tyranny”.

The IOC, as well as similar international sporting organisations, would no doubt argue that sport is a vital tool for peace and the promotion of international co-operation. Turning the international spotlight onto Turkmenistan for the period of the games, they might suggest, provides a motive for the country to improve its human rights record and become more integrated within the wider international community. After all, the Olympic Movement proclaims that its mission is to “contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind”.

The history of both the Olympic Movement and international sport in general, however, has demonstrated that it can be all too easy for authoritarian regimes to twist sporting events to their own, often strongly nationalist, ends. The most famous example of course is the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which saw the Olympic torch lit in the shadow of Nazi swastika flags and the games turned into a huge propaganda exercise for Hitler’s regime and its ideology. Later in the 20th century, the 1978 FIFA World Cup was hosted by Argentina, which had been under the rule of a brutal military junta since 1976. Allegations of interventions by the Argentine dictatorship to ensure their football team’s success are unproven, but what is clear is that the eventual victory for the Argentine national team helped the regime to obscure the realities of forced disappearances and repression that characterised its ‘National Reorganisation Process’.

The 21st century appears to be seeing a resurgence in such politicised sporting events, with the next two FIFA World Cups due to be held in Russia and Qatar (in 2018 and 2022 respectively) two nations with their own well-documented recent history of human-rights and freedom of expression abuse. The 2017 games in Turkmenistan arguably formed a part of this wider pattern, as its regime sought to harness the legitimacy and international recognition the tournament provides in both domestic and foreign spheres. The prominence of horses and other proudly Turkmen imagery in the tournament’s decorative and symbolic elements attempted to appeal to the population’s national pride, while a focus on the ancient history of the country as a key part of the Silk Road linking China and the Middle East hinted at Turkmenistan’s potential significance to the regional and international community.

There is no doubt that Turkmenistan ran a successful tournament, with 21 different sports on display, including Belt-Wrestling, Chess, Ju-jitsu and, of course, Equestrian. Several world records were broken, including an 18-year-old weightlifting world record smashed by Iran’s Sohrab Moradi, who set an aggregate total of 413kg in his discipline.

Turkmenistan’s 89 gold medal haul, more than double China’s total in second place, ensured that the games were a national sporting triumph, a propaganda boon for the regime. A sports complex was built especially for the games, which encompassed over 30 different facilities including competition venues, accommodation, transportation and other infrastructures. The two five-star hotels on the complex were clearly designed to impress the hundreds of members of the press and Olympic officials set to stay there.

The total cost of the Olympic village has been estimated at $5 billion dollars, all while many in the country, particularly those who live far from the capital Ashgabat and the opulence of the games, live in poverty. While the glittery 10 days of the games have passed, those activists struggling for freedom of expression and political rights in Turkmenistan will be wishing that the eyes of the world’s media linger on their country for a little longer, to see what lies beneath the shiny surface.