Last week was a big week for Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the president of Turkmenistan. The former dentist had a packed schedule of days full of adoration from his constituents, and rousing parades along the highways of the glitteringly white, eerily quiet capital city of Ashkabat.
These long days of celebration were Turkmen Carpet Day (yes, really) on Sunday, International Children’s Day on Monday, and World Bicycle Day on Wednesday. This last milestone was feted with typical autocratic flair: a massive parade of 7,400 unmasked and non-socially-distanced cyclists – because Turkmenistan claims no cases of coronavirus – to the unveiling of a massive monument titled ‘Bicycle’.
It was a day to wave flags, and release thousands of balloons, and ride bikes, and sing songs. It was a day to honour Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the Great Protector of Turkmenistan, the self-proclaimed motherland of Neutrality.
Now. Let me paint you two pictures of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov.
On the spectrum of eccentric dictators, Berdimuhamedov is in the upper echelons in both eccentricity and dictatorial flair. He raps. He DJs. He shreds on guitar. He drives fast cars in big circles around enormous pits of fire. He also loves bikes – like, really properly loves bikes – and in that particular sense, he’s one of us.
Berdimuhamedov’s passions don’t end there. He is reportedly a prolific author, supposedly winning awards for his 2017 book ‘Turkmenistan’, with honorary prizes in the same year awarded to his tomes ‘Music of Peace, Music of Friendship and Brotherhood’ and ‘Swift Step of Race Horse’ (and that’s just his 2017 output – he has penned entire volumes about carpets and tea that I’m leaving out here). He gives himself jazzy nicknames, like ‘People’s Horse Breeder’. He’s very fond of a good tracksuit.
One of his most pronounced eccentricities – and that’s with plenty of competition – is that he collects Guinness World Records. In Berdimuhamedov’s collection is the World’s Largest Indoor Ferris Wheel – a structure he commissioned in Ashgabat – and the highest density of buildings with white marble cladding (again, Ashgabat).
And because of the President’s special fascination with bicycles, there are a couple of World Records on that front too, such as 2018’s hotly contested ‘World’s largest cycling awareness lesson’, and 2019’s ‘World’s longest line of cyclists riding single file’. Hooray!
Berdimuhamedov loves bikes so much that he’s got a deep collection of them – e-bikes, fat bikes, vintage townies – usually brand-neutral, emblazoned simply with the word ‘Turkmenistan’ and accented with gold leaf. Berdimuhamedov rides those bikes around Ashgabat and beyond, because he is a spritely guy. His athletic virility is such a big deal that state media reports on it, which means that Turkmen newspapers regularly publish stories with headlines like “President of Turkmenistan makes a 20 kilometre bike ride”, which is quite something.
Now let me paint you another picture of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov.
Since the 2006 death of his spectacularly loopy predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has ruled the resource-rich Turkmenistan with an iron fist. While Berdimuhamedov initially set to work at overturning some of Niyazov’s more bizarre decrees – which included renaming days of the week, months and cities after himself – and presented an outward appearance of opening the country up to the world, it wasn’t long until a new personality cult had sprung up.
Today, Berdimuhamedov presides over one of the most repressive regimes in the world. According to Human Rights Watch, the president has complete control over public life, energetically suppressing alternative political and religious expression. In the ‘elections’ since claiming power, Berdimuhamedov has enjoyed up to 98% approval, which is the kind of landslide that seems purpose-built to raise eyebrows.
In 2019, Reporters Without Borders put Turkmenistan as the worst country in the world for press freedom, behind even North Korea, and the country has the highest number of political prisoners out of all former Soviet states, against whom torture is reportedly practiced. The word ‘coronavirus’ is banned, homosexuality is illegal, child and forced marriage is still prevalent, gender inequality is entrenched, and dissidents are ‘disappeared’ into prison for indefinite sentences.
Which is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a less rosy picture of Berdimuhamedov than the doting grandfather who drops hot beats with his grandson on national television.
The UCI and the Dictator
So what does this all have to do with the UCI?
Besides buying its way to Guinness World Records, Turkmenistan has found another way of gaining international legitimacy – sport. In 2017, Ashgabat hosted the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games – nope, I hadn’t heard of it either – at a cost of US$5 billion, which is an abstractly vast sum that really starts to take shape when you consider that it’s more than was initially allocated for the Rio Olympic Games.
For the event – which saw the hosting nation top the medal tally, naturally – more than 30 structures were built, including 15 stadia, hotels and a monorail. Predictably enough, this monument to excess was clad in white marble and accented with a whole lot of gold, which is kinda Berdimuhamedov’s jam.
Whilst $5 billion is a batshit-crazy amount of money to spend on an event of minor global significance, there was at least one happy upside – Turkmenistan now had one (1) velodrome and a lot of money, which along with Berdimuhamedov’s interest in “velosport” seems to have satisfied the necessary conditions for the UCI to bestow the country with the 2021 Track World Championships.
In short: the dictator is a fan of cycling. The UCI seems to be fans of the dictator.
Last Tuesday night, on the eve of World Bicycle Day, Berdimuhamedov had an intimate call with UCI President David Lappartient and Russian autocrat, Igor Makarov. The whole thing was filmed for state TV, which is why I can report that it makes for very odd viewing, with a lot of shots of Lappartient holding up certificates and pictures of trophies in front of a webcam, intercut with still photos of the stiff-looking Turkmen dictator smiling enigmatically.
“I am happy to inform you that on the occasion of World Bicycle Day, the UCI Steering Committee has made a unanimous decision to award you the highest UCI award and its certificate for your immense contribution to the development of world cycling,” Lappartient reportedly told Berdimuhamedov.
In the central Asian country, this was the biggest story of the day – a 10-minute segment on Berdimuhamedov’s latest honour headlined the nightly news.¹
The next day’s news bulletin, on World Bicycle Day itself, featured a full 25-minute segment of the president inspecting his big Bicycle statue, giving a speech and riding around, while an absolute banger of a tune (“Sport sport sport!”) blasts in the background.
Lappartient and Berdimuhamedov go back a way – on the same day last year the Frenchman was in the capital, Ashgabat, where he considered himself “lucky to participate in the celebrations, including the mass cycle marathon, together with the President of Turkmenistan.”
Together, they watched the Guinness World Record for longest line of cyclists riding single-file get smashed out of the water, and then, the UCI president took a tour of the five-storey, 6,000-spectator Ashgabat Velodrome. Lappartient even got a special Turkmenistan tracksuit from his hosts, posing obligingly inside the velodrome for state media.
Sitting in on Berdimuhamedov and Lappartient’s Skype love-in was Igor Makarov – an Ashgabat-born gas billionaire. In a past life he cycled for the Soviet Union, and now he’s one of the most powerful men in both world cycling and eastern-European business. Makarov is on the UCI’s steering committee and is a close associate of the famously incorruptible Vladimir Putin, which is a fact that I present with no further comment.
You may know Makarov from such hits as ‘founding Katusha cycling team’ in 2008; law enforcement agencies know him from such hits as ‘that time he was investigated by the FBI for attempting to bribe a Congressman’.
Due to coronavirus – which has been vanquished (read ignored) by Turkmenistan under the benevolent hand of The Great Protector – Lappartient could not be in Ashgabat to give a dictator the UCI’s highest honour, to his apparent chagrin. “It would be a great pleasure for me to personally present you with the UCI award, but this is not yet possible due to the current known situation in the world,” Lappartient told Berdimuhamedov, peeping out from behind a framed certificate.
Berdimuhamedov, sitting at his desk flanked by multiple computers, smiled enigmatically back at Lappartient and Makarov.
If you think there’s a certain dissonance in the governing body of a sport bestowing its highest honour to an autocrat with a patchy human rights record, you’re not alone. Perhaps, I wondered, the UCI didn’t realise the darker side of Berdimuhamedov’s rule. Perhaps the award was all just a propaganda beat-up. So, I sent them an email with the following specific questions:
Is the award given to Berdimuhamedov by Lappartient the highest that the UCI can bestow, as has been reported by Turkmen state media?
Who else has received this award, and when? ²
Is the UCI aware of the Turkmen regime’s patchy record on press freedom, political and religious suppression and freedom of speech?
Are these factors considered when deciding on locations to host World Championships?
I include the UCI’s response in full – only because it’s worth noting the extent to which it fails to address any of my questions, which is 100%:
“As the governing body of cycling, the Union Cycliste Internationale’s mission is to contribute to the development of our sport throughout the world. Across all our eight disciplines (road cycling, track cycling, mountain bike, BMX Racing, BMX Freestyle, cyclo-cross, trials and indoor cycling), we strive to ensure our events reflect the geographic diversity of our 196 National Federations. This can be seen with the staging of next year’s UCI Track Cycling World Championships presented by Tissot in Turkmenistan, member country of the Asian Cycling Confederation (ACC). Moreover, Turkmenistan was behind the United Nations’ creation of the annual World Bicycle Day, which celebrated its third edition on 3 June. ³
The UCI presented an award to the President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov in recognition of his commitment to our sport through world-class competitions, mass participation events and the promotion of cycling for all. The 2021 edition of the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in Turkmenistan’s capital, on the ultra-modern Velodrome at the Ashgabat Sports Complex, which was inaugurated in 2017, is part of the long tradition of the Worlds organised outside Europe (the Americas, Asia, Oceania).
An Olympic discipline since the beginning of the modern era of the Olympic Games, track cycling continues its internationalisation, as highlighted recently by the participation figures – 352 athletes and 45 nations – at the last UCI World Championships in Berlin, Germany.”
So … nothing to see here, I guess?
As the governing body of a global sport, the UCI walks a challenging tightrope. The growth of cycling, especially into new markets, represents a sort of progress – that’s been the argument behind the 2016 Road World Championships, awarded to Qatar, and new races like Tour of Guangxi in China. That was also part of RCS’ justification for awarding the 2019 Giro d’Italia grande partenza to Israel.
The sport of cycling needs money to survive, too. The UCI is a commercial entity, and gets written a cheque by hosting nations for events like world championships. Qatar’s 2016 Road World Championships was reportedly a US$11 million payday, and it’s reasonable to assume that Berdimuhamedov handed over a significant sum for next year’s Track Worlds, although the amount has not been disclosed.
Professional cycling’s team model, meanwhile, teeters on a knife edge. Investment in teams and national programs is, by necessity, gratefully received – even if you may not want to look too closely at where the money came from, or the human rights record of the benefactor. That’s why you’ve got figures like Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa – owner of Bahrain-McLaren, who’s been accused of personally torturing dissidents – and Igor Makarov – founder of the now defunct Katusha team and accused racketeer – playing a role in the sport. And that’s to say nothing of state-sponsored teams like Astana and UAE-Team Emirates, funded by regimes with foibles of their own.
An impossible situation
So where does that leave us? Is the sport forever fated to be locked in a dance with financial interests? Can the UCI separate sport from politics? Should it even try?
There’s no easy answer to these questions, because idealism and reality often sit in opposition. The world is shades of grey rather than black and white, and people are complicated – whether they’re you or me or David Lappartient or Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov.
Here’s what we do know, though.
Last Tuesday, the UCI awarded a dictator with its highest honour, a once-in-a-decade event that was nonetheless secretive enough to avoid a mention anywhere on their website. When I challenged them on Berdimuhamedov’s human rights record, they were conspicuously silent.
A week later the UCI published an article titled ‘The UCI for diversity in cycling’, highlighting in part the organisation’s Code of Ethics: “The persons bound by the Code shall not undertake any action, use any denigrating words, or any other means, that offend the human dignity of a person or group of persons, on any grounds including but not limited to skin colour, race, religion, ethnic or social origin, political opinion, sexual orientation, disability or any other reason contrary to human dignity.”
The UCI cannot control whether Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is a dictator who oppresses his six million citizens. They also can’t stop him spending billions of dollars on sporting facilities as a means of sports-washing that oppression, while his citizens suffer.
But they can choose whether or not to award Turkmenistan a world championship, or give its dictator the UCI Order, an award that hasn’t been issued to anyone in the last 13 years. At that point, by both their silence and by their actions, they’re simply endorsing a dictator.
Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is basically a nuclear arsenal away from being a central-Asian Kim Jong Un, and this whole thing makes me wonder: if Kim Jong Un decided he loved cycling, how far would we be from a World Championships in Pyongyang?
On World Bicycle Day – an event that exists in part because of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov – thousands of Turkmen citizens in matching tracksuits on matching green bikes pedalled along the boulevards of Ashbagat towards an immense golden globe, around which statues of cyclists circle. On special occasions like this, Turkmen citizens recite from heart the nation’s sacred oath, which says of the president and his country: “For the slightest evil against you, let my hand be lost! For the slightest ill spoken about you, let my tongue shrivel!”
It seems the UCI got that memo, at least.
¹ Whilst you’re at it, check out the final 10 minutes of ‘kids wave balloons and ride in buses’. It’s cracking stuff. I also like the bit at 6:57 where Lappartient is definitely sending a furtive email.
² While the UCI ignored this question, they did offer confirmation to Ferghana, a central Asian news outlet, that the mysterious award is the “UCI Order”, which is “the highest distinction bestowed by our Federation to eminent people, usually working in high positions in political or cultural fields, in recognition of their commitment to our sport”.
³ World Bicycle Day began as a class project led by Polish-American academic, Leszek Sibilski. After trying to build a profile for the Day, Sibilski approached a number of UN ambassadors to see if any would table a resolution to bring World Bicycle Day into international recognition. Ever the keen cyclist, Berdimuhamedov’s Turkmenistan was the sponsoring country. Since World Bicycle Day was inaugurated by the UN General Council in 2018, Turkmenistan has enthusiastically celebrated the day that they helped create.
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