Turkmen dictator Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov (right) on a bike ride with his favourite grandson, Kerim.

‘Covid-free’ Turkmenistan to vaccinate riders against virus it won’t acknowledge

The 2021 Track Worlds host will offer free COVID-19 vaccines to all athletes – despite denying the existence of COVID in the country.

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Any time’s a good time to check in on our favourite central Asian dictator, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, especially when he does or says something cycling-adjacent.

So we’re thrilled to report that Turkmenistan, which will be hosting the 2021 Track Cycling World Championships in October, has outlined its COVID-19 protocols in preparation for the event. 

In any other circumstance, this would be a boring bit of sporting admin, but when it comes to Turkmenistan, there’s an interesting wrinkle.

The country notoriously maintains that it is entirely virus-free – and until recently, banned the word ‘coronavirus’ altogether and arrested people found wearing masks.

Meanwhile, hospitals in the country have been inundated with what are euphemistically referred to as “pneumonia” victims. 

In July, with Turkmen leadership adamant that it was a safe-haven from a virus that it refused to acknowledge the existence of, a World Health Organisation team visited the country and advised Turkmenistan to act “as if COVID-19 was circulating”. A strict lockdown was imposed, and the mask position was reversed; students signed a pledge to wear masks and their parents were ordered to promise to practise good hand hygiene. 

The Virus That Must Not Be Named remains an elusive topic in Turkmenistan. The masks that are now mandatory are touted as a safeguard not against COVID, but against dust blowing in from the Aral Sea. The Turkmen health ministry has also issued advice recommending the habitual gargling of salt-water and the burning of yuzarlik grass, a traditional remedy popular in Turkmenistan. 

But now Turkmenistan has a couple of major sporting events looming on its calendar, which will see hundreds of international athletes travelling to Ashgabat.

Some of these athletes might have coronavirus. All of them will know that it exists. 

At a glance, that appears to leave Berdimuhamedov backed into a corner.

However, in a segment televised on the state-owned TV channel, the dictator outlined a vaccination plan that cunningly avoided acknowledging what was actually being vaccinated against. 

Foreign track cyclists arriving in Turkmenistan will be vaccinated against unspecified “infectious diseases” with the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine, which Turkmenistan has approved the registration of.

However, “despite the vaccine registered in our country, the foreign sportsmen may wish to have another vaccine, in which regard they have to have a choice,” Berdimuhamedov reportedly said, before instructing officials to provide any vaccine of an athlete’s choice, free of charge, which sounds like a logistical nightmare.

In a statement provided to CyclingTips, the UCI said that a “health protocol shall be required to reduce as much as possible the risks of transmission of COVID-19 in and around the championships” – which Berdimuhamedov’s “Get a vaccine, any vaccine” strategy undeniably bolsters. 

Representatives of the Turkmen track squad training. Image: Turkmen state media.

Meanwhile, preparations in the post-truth republic continue for both the upcoming Davis Cup tennis qualifiers and the UCI World Track Championships. On a tour of the Turkmen tennis facility, Berdimuhamedov “inquired about the preparatory work unfolding, focusing on the need to take into account”, and I quote, “all of the indicators.” Berdimuhamedov also noted that “Turkmen tennis players win prizes in international competitions”. [Related: Turkmenistan’s leading male tennis player, Aleksandr Ernepesov, is ATP-unranked and has career prize money of US$104].

On his whistle-stop tour of sporting complexes, Berdimuhamedov also gave instructions for the broadcast of the Track World Championships to be overseen by highly-qualified specialists who must – and again, I quote – “masterfully master all the equipment”. The Great Protector then visited the Ashgabat velodrome, “performed various sports exercises in the training hall”, and reminded Turkmen media of the proverb “My health is my wealth”.

Health is indeed, as Berdimuhamedov stresses, one’s wealth. But while Turkmenistan continues to pursue international credibility through the medium of sports – by throwing less metaphorical wealth at governing bodies like the UCI – there remains the uncomfortable question of how citizens in the totalitarian regime are to be expected to safeguard themselves against a highly contagious disease that they aren’t told about. 

Another glorious day in Ashgabat.

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