Reclusive Turkmenistan Opens Doors; Begins Construction of Olympic Dreams

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan – An impressive $5 billion Olympic Park has quietly risen in the Turkmenistan city of Ashgabat, a complex that could support the Asian Games and be leveraged for a future Olympic Games – the state sport ministry announced at the International Sports Media Forum that just concluded in the Capital.

Main street in Ashgabat at mid-day while citizens are at work or at school (GB Photo)

Main street in Ashgabat at mid-day while citizens are at work or at school (GB Photo)

Built for the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games that the city secured hosting rights for in 2010 – the complex includes 15 venues including 15,000 and 5,000 seat indoor arenas, an indoor athletics stadium, an indoor tennis facility, an aquatics facility, a 12,000 bed athletes’ village and 800 bed luxury media hotel. The centrepiece of the complex seems to be a 6,000 seat velodrome that is near completion and will be the largest capacity cycling arena in the world. Global venue designer Arup is known for its innovative projects including the Sydney Opera House and the Beijing Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium.

The park is built to accommodate the 5,000 athletes from 62 countries that are expected for the Games that were last held in Incheon, South Korea earlier this year.

Turkey’s Polimeks is the project developer employing an international workforce along with an array of expert consultants. The firm has just been awarded a contract to deliver the third phase of the project – the new 45,000 seat Olympic Stadium.

Olympic Complex Project Coordinator Osman Karakus said “the Ashgabat Olympic Complex will not only provide world class facilities of the latest international standards but will also provide a legacy for the youth of Turkmenistan.”

“In addition it is anticipated that these facilities will allow Turkmenistan to successfully bid and win the rights to further international events.”

Turkmenistan’s National Olympic Committee Secretary General Azat Muradov further explained “we want to put our country on the world sport map.”

“After 2017 we have a vision to host bigger Games like the Asian Games and the Youth Olympic Games.

“The final destination for us is the Olympic Games.”

And national leaders certainly like to think big, whether it be earning Guinness world records for the largest carpet in the world or the most white marble-clad buildings in a city; for building the world’s tallest flag pole (recently demoted to second by a larger pole in Tajikistan); or for the largest velodrome – grandiose vision seems to be the prerequisite for Turkmen projects.

Muradov admits that Ashgabat must gain experience and further develop before an Olympics enters into the picture, but it is clear that change for this developing nation is already underway.

The young nation gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and declared itself a neutral state to the United Nations in 1995, triggering a “renaissance” of sorts in Ashgabat. While benefitting from revenues generated by the fourth-largest natural gas reserve in the world, a new section of Ashgabat has been built from scratch over the past 10 years with most buildings clad in a white marble facade earning it the nickname “the white city”. Complete with opulent architecture, several colossal yet eloquent monuments and fountains upon fountains – the neon-lit Ashgabat evening evokes allusion to the Las Vegas strip, including the “oasis from the desert” analogy.

Part of the new city, the ultramodern and white marble-clad Olympic complex is already becoming an iconic addition to Turkmenistan. At one end, the old Olympic Stadium is currently under demolition to make way for the new stadium set for delivery in 2017 – the final symbolic transition for sport in the nation.

But hosting nations for major sport events takes more than infrastructure, more than venues and indeed, more than money. That is why change, and a culture for change, must evolve in the city of over one million inhabitants and the country of five million.

Taking a first crucial step, Turkmenistan’s single-party President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow spearheaded the Sports Media Forum and opened the doors for 40 journalists from 23 different nations to visit Ashgabat and the Olympic complex and share his vision for sport. In addition, international journalists discussed sports media best practices with local journalists and level-set reasonable expectations for the Games that will be hosted in 2017 with potentially thousands of foreign journalists.

Part of the Ashgabat Olympic Park under construction with world's largest velodrome being readied at far right (GB Photo)

Part of the Ashgabat Olympic Park under construction with world’s largest velodrome being readied at far right (GB Photo)

This is a watershed for journalism in Turkmenistan where local media are typically subject to state censorship and foreign journalists are rarely granted visas. Facebook is among various social media and microblogging Web sites that are banned in the country while Internet speed and penetration for civilians is among the worst in the world.

According to the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index, Turkmenistan is third-last in the world just ahead of North Korea and Burma.

The Turkmenistan President took office in 2006, and while working to bring change through constitutional amendments he also learned that sport too can be a catalyst for change. In 2010 he proclaimed his bold vision “to promote sports and physical culture in the country and facilitate its integration in the global sports processes.”

“Our duty and ultimate goal is to support and promote the sport and Olympic movement, actively involve youth in it and give citizens access to sport and physical culture from childhood,” he said.

Outside of the White City, in the shadow of the mountains that separate Turkmenistan from Iran about ten kilometers away, people in a small community live and work. Satellite dishes capture foreign television signals and children play football, basketball and other sports. Absent are the white marble facades and monuments – but the passion for sport remains in common with those privileged to be in the new Ashgabat.

As the group of international journalists attended official meetings and visited cultural sites, accompanying students from the National Sport Institute watched wide-eyed as they discovered the opportunity that lies ahead for them. While sport may be the catalyst for change, they will be the ones responsible for executing that change as Turkmenistan welcomes the world in 2017 and in Games beyond.

View our Facebook photo diary of Ashgabat and the event: CLICK HERE.

About Robert Livingstone

A senior producer and award-winning journalist covering Olympic bid business as founder of as well as providing freelance support for print and Web publications around the world. Robert Livingstone is a member of the Olympic Journalists Association and the International Society of Olympic Historians.