A car race in Turkmenistan is hardly worth the while unless the president is competing. And winning, naturally.
The government’s Golden Age website reported that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov turned up early in the morning on August 22 to take part in the Alfa Romeo 2015 Cup.
A little counterintuitively, the auto-rally track started from the bottom of the Path of Health, a steep, concrete stairway set into the mountains south of Ashgabat that Berdymukhamedov’s predecessor instituted to get Turkmens walking their way to a long life.
Golden Age’s blow-by-blow account of the race brimmed with excitement. Berdymukhamedov took his place in car No. 7, alongside with six other identical green Alfa Romeos.
“The route of the race, which is 57 kilometers long, was designed with a rather complex configuration, which allows competitors to show off their best qualities and to confirm their top class driving skills,” the report explained.
There was some competition, but the outcome was of course a given: “The cars fly, engines roar, the distance between them gets shorter and lengthens again on the bend, but then the Alfa Romeo No. 7 breaks away from its nearest pursuers and rushes forward, to victory!”
Berdymukhamedov clocked a finishing time of 26 minutes and 10 seconds, which equals an average speed of 130 kilometers per hour (81 miles per hour).
Not hugely impressive, some might argue, since that is equivalent to the highway speed limit in France, but perhaps only a closer study of the track would allow a fairer assessment. Foreign sports journalists have been welcomed to Turkmenistan, but then constrained from doing any actual reporting, so any such independent evaluation is unlikely to come soon.
This is not Berdymukhamedov’s first brush with motoring glory.
A corruption scandal has engulfed a high-profile international exhibition that Astana is organizing, just as Kazakhstan enters the final stages of its bid to stage another prominent global event – the Winter Olympics.
Talgat Yermegiyayev, the chief organizer of Kazakhstan’s EXPO-2017 exhibition (which is due to be held in Astana in two years) has been placed under house arrest on suspicion of embezzlement, reports the Today.kz website.
The court ruling was issued on June 12, the day after President Nursultan Nazarbayev had fired Yermegiyayev from his position as chief executive of the Astana EXPO-2017 company, which is organizing the international exhibition. Nazarbayev’s administration has billed the event a major PR coup for Kazakhstan.
Another top EXPO official, Kazhymurat Usenov, who was in charge of the department overseeing construction of facilities for the exhibition, has also been placed under house arrest. He is suspected of embezzling 214 million tenge ($1.2 million) from the $385 million the state has allocated for the $3 billion event.
The corruption scandal has erupted as Kazakhstan enters the final stages in the race to stage the 2022 Winter Olympics, in which commercial capital Almaty is competing with Beijing to host the prestigious sporting event. A vote is due at the end of July.
Kazakhstan's financial capital, Almaty, has deployed an obvious but credible argument in its battle with Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics – its real snow.
The bidding battle is coming to a close as the two finalists made their presentations to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Switzerland on June 9. The decisive votes will be cast in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on July 31.
Before the pitches, Almaty was perceived to be lagging behind Beijing in the contest. But a strong performance that focused on its rival's main weakness – a lack of natural snow – drew praise from IOC delegates.
“I was very, very agreeably surprised,” Canadian IOC member Dick Pound told the Associated Press after Almaty's pitch. “I think they attracted the attention of people who may not have been convinced before. It looks to me like they figured out all of the weaknesses of the competitors and they just nailed the differences – snow, water, air, experience.”
The two cities were given a 45-minute presentation slot to impress the delegates followed by a 45-minute question-and-answer session. Almaty’s message was simple: Its mountains, covered in genuine snow, are the ideal backdrop for the Games.
“I think the Almaty presentation scored some points,” U.S. Olympic Committee chairman and IOC member Larry Probst told the AP. “They drove home the message 'keeping it real.' That was all about snow versus making snow. I think that resonates.”
There’s apparently no end to Kazakhstan's sporting ambitions. While it waits for the International Olympic Committee to decide if it can host the 2022 Winter Games, the oil-rich Central Asian country – not exactly a soccer star – has declared its desire to host the Football World Cup finals in 2026.
“We want to hold the Winter Olympics in 2022, and then it's in the plan to compete for the World Cup in 2026,” Yerlan Kozhagapanov, president of the Kazakhstan Football Federation, told Russia's Sport Express newspaper this week. Our economy is growing rapidly, the country is developing, so why not?”
Kazakhstan – which ranks 138 in the FIFA World Ranking – is far from a soccer superpower. The country has has never qualified for the final stages of a major international tournament and is currently languishing last place in its qualification group for the Euro 2016 championships; it has earned just one point in five matches.
But Kozhagapanov hopes that with a bit of investment, this is all about to change: “We are now starting a program to develop football in Kazakhstan from 2015 to 2022, and establishing a coaching school is one of five priorities.”
In Kazakhstan there is one coach for every 347 children. This compares with one to eight in Germany and one to three in England. Other priorities include developing training infrastructure and combating match-fixing.
Footballers for Galatasaray, the legendary Turkish club, may soon be wearing the name of Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, across their chests. Kazakhstan’s sovereign-wealth fund, Samruk-Kazyna, is rumored to be close to signing a five-year, $50 million deal to sponsor Galatasaray, Turkish media has reported.
Samruk-Kazyna is the main source of funding for the Astana Presidential Sports Club. Astana was already affiliated with the Istanbul-based team after the two signed a cooperation agreement in April. It is unclear if the jerseys will be marked “Astana” or “Samruk-Kazyna.”
Team Astana, founded in 2012, has had a good year. In cycling, the team’s Vincenzo Nibali won the Tour de France. Figure skater Denis Ten, who receives funding from Samruk-Kazyna, won bronze for Kazakhstan at the Sochi Winter Olympics. And Samruk-Kazyna-funded middleweight boxer Gennady Golovkin successfully defended his world champion title in October.
The wins are part of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s relentless effort to promote the capital city he founded in 1997, and Kazakhstan more generally, on the world stage. Senior officials are actively engaged in the effort. National Bank Chairman Kairat Kelimbetov, for example, is president of the Cycling Association funded by Samruk-Kazyna.
Kazakhstan's chances of hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics took a turn for the better this week as Norway announced it was withdrawing Oslo's bid, leaving only Almaty and Beijing interested in hosting the expensive extravaganza.
Norway pulled out of the race on October 1 citing a lack of public support for the costly venture. This year's Sochi Winter Olympics, in Russia, came in way over budget at $51 billion. The fear of ballooning costs has seen the number of contenders to host the 2022 Games dwindle from six to just two.
With Kazakhstan's economy under pressure from the downturn in close partner Russia, the country’s Olympic Committee will need to carefully watch its budget. So far, Kazakh officials are confident they can keep costs for the Almaty bid down as the city already has much infrastructure required for the Games. It has facilities built for the 2011 Asian Winter Games and is currently splashing out $1 billion on amenities for the 2017 Winter Universiade, which brings together student athletes from around the world.
Kazakh officials see the hosting of high-profile events like the Winter Olympics as great PR. “As government officials we are working hard to attract investments and being in a country recognized all over the world is very good for attracting investments,” Kairat Kelimbetov, chairman of Kazakhstan's National Bank, told TengriNews in August.
Kazakhstan's flagship Astana cycling team claimed victory in this year's Tour de France as the team’s Italian leader Vincenzo Nibali lead the turquoise and yellow charge into Paris on July 27.
Nibali bested his nearest rival by over seven minutes to record a third Tour de France success for the Astana team. He won his kisses, too: Earlier, after Nibali had won the second stage of the race, he was awkwardly rebuffed. This time there were no uncomfortable scenes on the winner's rostrum.
The Astana Pro Team for this year's Tour included three Italians, two riders from Kazakhstan and one rider each from Denmark, Ukraine, The Netherlands and Estonia. Spaniard Alberto Contador previously led Astana to wins in 2009 and again in 2010. But the 2010 victory was soured as Contador was stripped of the title over doping allegations.
Following the retirement of Kazakhstan's most famous rider Alexander Vinokourov in 2012, the Astana team was overhauled for the 2013 season with the arrival of an Italian contingent headed by Nibali and two of his teammates from the Liquigas-Cannondale team. Astana scored an immediate success with Nibali, nicknamed “the Shark,” winning the 2013 Giro d'Italia.
The Astana Pro Team was formed in 2006 and has garnered heaps of international PR for Kazakhstan's glitzy new capital, Astana. Its main sponsor is the state asset holding company Samruk-Kazyna, which pumps in more than $20 million a year to keep the wheels turning and buff up Kazakhstan’s international image.
While most of the world's attention is now fixated on the World Cup in Brazil, the lesser-known sport of horseback wrestling has been grabbing headlines in Kazakhstan.
Asia's first horseback wrestling championships were held near Astana, Kazakhstan's glitzy capital, on June 15. A total of 35 wrestlers from Central Asia and beyond took part in fast and furious tussles: bouts can be over in less than 10 seconds. The rules of audaryspak, as the sport is called in Kazakh, are simple – there are two guys on horseback and the object is to be the first to wrestle your opponent to the ground.
Kazakhstan took gold in all three weight categories – Yermek Zhapishev prevailed in the 70 kg class, Syrym Izbasarov won the 70-90 kg class, and the 90 kg and above category was taken by Birzhan Kosaliyev. Competitors from China, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Uzbekistan filled the other places on the podium.
The horseback grappling-fest was organized by Kazakhstan's Association of National Sports and was sponsored by President Nursultan Nazarbayev's politcal party Nur Otan. Samruk-Kazyna, the nation's cash-rich sovereign wealth fund, was another sponsor. Kossaliyev, winner of the 90 kg and above class, took home a Toyota car and a check for a million tenge ($5,448).
Audaryspak, which originated on the Central Asian steppe in the times when the horse was king and fighting abilities were paramount, is now enjoying a contemporary renaissance, spreading its reach into Hungary, Russia, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, and China, where the next championships are to be held in 2016.
With no teams from Central Asia making it to the 2014 World Cup finals, set to kick off tomorrow in Brazil, local interest again will focus on the man in the middle, Uzbekistan's top referee Ravshan Irmatov.
Tashkent-based Irmatov, 36, won plaudits for his smooth handling of five high-pressure matches in South Africa in 2010, including the opening game and the semi-final between The Netherlands and Uruguay. He returned home a hero and was anointed the Pride Of Uzbekistan, the state's highest honor.
Irmatov will be joined in Brazil by two assistant referees from Central Asia—Bakhadyr Kochkarov, 44, another South Africa veteran who hails from Osh, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan's Abdukhamidullo Rasulov, 38, who is making his first World Cup appearance. The three work as football instructors at home and are the only officials from the former Soviet Union presiding in Brazil (Russia’s team is competing).
The Central Asian troika will need to be on the ball to avoid repeating gaffes the group made at last year's Confederations Cup tournament also in Brazil. There, Irmatov allowed Italy a controversial goal in its match with Brazil. He initially blew for a foul and was seen pointing at the penalty spot but then allowed play to continue and Giorgio Chiellini scored for the Italians.
Irmatov accepted the goal but later admitted it should not have been allowed, that he should have stuck with the decision to give a penalty. In the same match, Rasulov and Kochkarov were both faulted for failing to spot offside goals scored by Brazil.
Could 2018 become the new 1980? It might, if recent initiatives aiming to use a major sporting event to punish Russia for geopolitical misbehavior can gain traction.
Back in 1979, it was the Kremlin’s military occupation of Afghanistan that prompted a US-led boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympic Games the following year. The trigger today is Russia’s land grab in Crimea, an act of territorial aggression that has evoked memories of Nazi Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland back in 1938.
Russia, as readers may remember, is scheduled to host the 2018 World Cup football tournament, the world’s most watched sporting event. A couple of football fans in the United States and Europe, outraged by Russia’s incursion, have launched web-based petitions calling on FIFA, football’s governing body, to relocate the 2018 World Cup.
“International sporting bodies have an obligation to speak up when there’s injustice, and there’s a tournament being held in the country that’s perpetuating the injustice,” said Zach Lewis, a New York City resident who launched a petition drive hosted by the global activism website, Change.org.