Prove They Are Alive!
  For Democracy and Human Rights in Turkmenistan

The UCI just gave its highest award to this crackpot dictator

Iain Treloar

Because of the Presidents special fascination with bicycles, there are a couple of World Records on that front too: Worlds largest cycling awareness lesson, Worlds longest line of cyclists riding single file.

The week before last 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 Childrens 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.

Party President

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, hes one of us.

Berdimuhamedovs passions dont 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 thats just his 2017 output  he has penned entire volumes about carpets and tea that Im leaving out here). He gives himself jazzy nicknames, like Peoples Horse Breeder. Hes very fond of a good tracksuit.

One of his most pronounced eccentricities  and thats with plenty of competition  is that he collects Guinness World Records. In Berdimuhamedovs collection is the Worlds 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 Presidents special fascination with bicycles, there are a couple of World Records on that front too, such as 2018s hotly contested Worlds largest cycling awareness lesson, and 2019s Worlds longest line of cyclists riding single file. Hooray!

Berdimuhamedov loves bikes so much that hes 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.

Dangerous Dictator

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 Niyazovs 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 wasnt 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, Im sure youll agree, a less rosy picture of Berdimuhamedov than the doting grandfather who drops hot beats with his grandson on national television.

The HE 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 hadnt 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 its 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 Berdimuhamedovs 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 velodrome and a lot of money, which along with Berdimuhamedovs 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.

Honorouring Gurbanguly

June 3rd night, on the eve of World Bicycle Day, Berdimuhamedov had an intimate call with UCI President David Lappartient and Russian oligarch, 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 Berdimuhamedovs latest honour headlined the nightly news.¹

The next days 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 Lappartients Skype love-in was Igor Makarov  an Ashgabat-born gas billionaire. In a past life he cycled for the Soviet Union, and now hes one of the most powerful men in both world cycling and eastern-European business. Makarov is on the UCIs steering committee and has a long history of business dealings with both the current dictator and the one before him  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. (Responding to this article, a PR firm representing Makarov noted that Neither Mr. Makarov, Itera or anyone associated with the company were charged, prosecuted or publicly accused by authorities of bribery or any similar crime.)

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 UCIs 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 theres a certain dissonance in the governing body of a sport bestowing its highest honour to an autocrat with a patchy human rights record, youre not alone. Perhaps, I wondered, the UCI didnt realise the darker side of Berdimuhamedovs 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?
  Is the UCI aware of the Turkmen regimes 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 UCIs response in full  only because its 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 Internationales 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 years 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.

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 Turkmenistans 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?

Financial Realities

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  thats 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 dItalia 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. Qatars 2016 Road World Championships was reportedly a US $11 million payday, and its reasonable to assume that Berdimuhamedov handed over a significant sum for next years Track Worlds, although the amount has not been disclosed.

Professional cyclings 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. Thats why youve got figures like Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa  owner of Bahrain-McLaren, whos been accused of personally torturing dissidents  and Igor Makarov  founder of the now defunct Katusha team, with ties to the Kremlin  playing a role in the sport. And thats 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?

Theres 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 theyre you or me or David Lappartient or Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov.

A serious office needs three laptops, three perfectly-placed mice and mousepads, and a line of monitors over the other side. And Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has a serious goddamn office.

Heres what we do know, though.

June 3rd, 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 Berdimuhamedovs 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 organisations 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 cant 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 hasnt been issued to anyone in the last 13 years. At that point, by both their silence and by their actions, theyre 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 nations 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.