ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan — With a glitzy sports show and a multi-billion-dollar spending spree, isolated Turkmenistan wants to show itself to the world.
Turkmenistan, a gas-rich former Soviet nation in Central Asia, has comparatively little contact with the outside world and sees few foreign visitors. Its authoritarian government is regularly criticized by human rights organizations.
Keen to turn his country — which has never won an Olympic medal — into a sports power, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s administration has spent $5 billion on arenas hosting the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games.
Previously a low-key offshoot of the Asian Games, the event was reimagined Sunday with a lavish opening ceremony that stressed Turkmenistan’s love of animals, featuring acrobats on horseback and a dog handler leading the athletes’ parade.
Berdymukhamedov, who hailed the games as “an event of huge social and political meaning” on Sunday before the ceremony, projects a sporty, all-action image. The cult of personality that surrounds his autocratic rule has included footage and photographs of him riding horses, flying helicopters, throwing knives, cycling, jogging and lifting weights.
Healthy lifestyles are promoted relentlessly. Last year, state employees were coerced into performing morning open-air fitness exercises, while the run-up to the games saw a ban on alcohol sales and a day when private cars were banned from the roads to encourage cycling.
The president — re-elected this year with more than 97 percent of the vote — is also a music lover who composed the official anthem of the games. In addition to the anthem, which received a rapturous reception from the crowd of mostly locals, songs also played praising Berdymukhamedov under his title of “Arkadag,” Turkmen for “The Protector.”
The spending on the games is a vast sum for a country of 5 million people which is mostly desert and has widespread poverty.
Besides the arenas which make up Ashgabat’s so-called Olympic Village, the government also splashed out $2.3 billion on an airport terminal shaped like a falcon. The pre-games construction was allegedly marred by what human rights groups called the mass demolition of local people’s houses to make way for sports venues.
In the seven years since Turkmenistan was awarded the games, the price of natural gas — the country’s only major export — has fallen, putting extra strain on government finances.
The games have been heavily promoted in Turkmenistan but are largely unknown internationally. Some of the Asia-Pacific region’s bigger sporting powers, like Japan and Australia, sent relatively small delegations.
The first medals were awarded a day before the games officially began. Despite its lack of success at the Olympics, Turkmenistan racked up 16 gold medals Saturday — eight times more than any other country — all in Jiu-Jitsu and a type of traditional wrestling.
Except for the visiting athletes and officials, the games have done little to open up the secretive nation. Border controls were tightened even further in the run-up to the event, citing security reasons.
Some foreign media representatives, including an Associated Press writer, were originally accredited to cover the event, then told a week beforehand that they couldn’t attend.
Dayanch Gulgediyev, chairman of the executive committee staging the games, said the games were so popular that some visitors had to be turned away.
“Due to big number of participants coming … and taking into account Ashgabat city’s accommodation capabilities, the priority has been given to those from Asian and Oceanian (National Olympic Committees) to better serve and promote the games,” he told the AP in an email.
Ellingworth reported from Moscow