UCI moves Track Worlds from ‘COVID-free’ Turkmenistan due to COVID

by Iain Treloar


The 2021 Track World Championships – which were scheduled to be held in Ashgabat, the capital city of Turkmenistan, in mid-October – have been cancelled. 

In a short press release issued late on Thursday, the UCI said the cancellation had occurred “at the request of their organisers, as the health constraints and restrictions linked to the COVID-19 pandemic make it impossible to stage the event in the country.”

Both the Turkmen Government and Ministry of Sport are yet to comment on the event cancellation, or acknowledge it in state media.

What’s the backstory here?

What’s the backstory? What isn’t?!

The Ashgabat Track Worlds were first awarded to Turkmenistan in 2018, and have been a topic of growing concern in the years since.

Extensive reporting on the subject by CyclingTips over the past year has brought increased scrutiny within the cycling sphere on the human rights abuses within Turkmenistan – a country under the authoritarian rule of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, an eccentric dictator who is almost as fond of cycling as he is of persecuting sexual and religious minorities.

Our reporting has also shone light on the many strange links between the UCI and Berdimuhamedov, raising questions of corruption and influence wielded by figures high in the sport’s hierarchy.

Then there’s the COVID-thing.

Two days ago, Berdimuhamedov – in a rare foreign interview with the Russian media outlet Mir – claimed that Turkmenistan has “yet to discover a case of [COVID-19]”. The country has reported zero cases and zero deaths related to the coronavirus pandemic, “thanks to work [we] have carried out,” Berdimuhamedov said. That puts Turkmenistan in rarified company with the famously transparent North Korea, as well as a handful of Pacific Island states that might actually have dodged the bullet. 

Turkmenistan has zero COVID and infinity tractors.

Nonetheless, Turkmenistan has recently emerged from a strict nine-month lockdown and extensive restrictions on internal travel. The few independent media reports to escape Turkmenistan have stated there has been a dramatic spike in cases of ‘pneumonia’. There has also been considerable flip-flopping on a mask mandate. Early in the pandemic people were actually arrested for wearing masks, but by July citizens were required to sign a pledge to wear a mask to protect against “harmful dust” blowing in from the Aral Sea. 

The arrival of a major sporting event in Turkmenistan in October put Berdimuhamedov in a difficult position, seeing as it would have seen an influx of international visitors – all of whom would be aware of the existence of a pandemic that the Turkmen regime would only speak about euphemistically, if at all. 

To this end, in January, Berdimuhamedov pledged to provide competing athletes with vaccination against unspecified “infectious diseases”. The Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine is registered for use in Turkmenistan, but Berdimuhamedov said that “the foreign sportsmen may wish to have another vaccine, in which regard they have to have a choice,” before instructing officials to provide any vaccine of an athlete’s choice, free of charge. 

Turkmenistan simultaneously has no COVID-19, and will not even talk about it, but will gladly provide visiting athletes with their choice of vaccine against it. Sounds like a perfect host. 

Turkmenistan’s Olympic Village, which was to be used for the 2021 Track World Championships, has it all. Including a monorail.

As recently as March, the President of Turkmenistan received Igor Makarov – a Russian billionaire who sits on the UCI Management Committee and has extensive business interests in Turkmenistan – in Ashgabat to discuss the event. According to state media:

“I. Makarov reported on the progress of works and on the fulfillment of the Turkmen leader’s instructions on the organization of this important sporting event.

“Highly appreciating the Turkmen leader’s initiative to hold the World Cycling Championship, which plays an important role in the development of world cycling, I. Makarov assured that the International Cycling Union would apply every effort to hold the tournament at the highest level.

“As noted, particular attention is paid to organizational issues. In particular, assistance will be provided to ensure that in the difficult situation due to the coronavirus pandemic, all athletes arriving in Turkmenistan are vaccinated.”

Makarov then flitted out of Turkmenistan on one or other of his private jets, “having assured that all instructions of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov will be fulfilled as soon as possible.”

So what went wrong?

Meanwhile, in Belarus …

Meanwhile, the European Cycling Union (UEC) was gearing up to head to Minsk – the capital of Belarus – for its continental track cycling championships in late June. Belarus has been under the authoritarian rule of Alexander Lukashenko for 27 years, and is regarded as Europe’s last dictatorship. Since stealing an election in 2020, Lukashenko has become increasingly aggressive in the defense of his rule, cracking down on internal dissent with tools including torture, concentration camps and mass supression of the media. 

The international sporting community responded against Belarus, with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) introducing sanctions against the country’s national olympic committee. Lukashenko violated the explicit terms of these sanctions, which led to further movement from the IOC. Major sporting events including the World Ice Hockey Championships pulled out of Belarus. 

A Belarusian flag flies over the Minsk velodrome.

Since February, CyclingTips was in dialogue with the UEC, which was adamant that its event could not move due to a lack of alternative hosts, among other logistical concerns. Further reporting from Danish newspaper Berlingske, however, revealed the existence of three alternative hosts that had put their hand up. 

The tipping point for the European Track Cycling Championships came when Lukashenko ordered the literal state-hijacking of a commercial flight in order to arrest an opposition journalist who was flying from Athens to Lithuania, over Belarusian airspace. Over the week after that incident – last week – multiple cycling federations, including Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, announced their boycott of the event. The UEC finally backed down, cancelling the event due to the “international debate” that had arisen. 

Lukashenko’s hijacking of a commercial flight was the tipping point for the UEC Track Championships.

In these announcements, senior members of a couple of federations also touched on their concerns about Ashgabat. British Cycling’s performance director said in a tweet that while he didn’t support a boycott of Ashgabat, he did “think it is reasonable for every athlete to consider their own position and determine whether they wish to attend or not”. Meanwhile, the director of the Dutch cycling union hinted at trepidation, but said that the Netherlands would not move first if others would not boycott the event.

Mid this week it was announced that the UEC track championships would be rescheduled to the second week of October, concluding four days before the Ashgabat Track Worlds were due to begin. 

In the movie Havana, Robert Redford’s character posits “a butterfly can flutter its wings over a flower in China and cause a hurricane in the Caribbean.”

Perhaps there’s a cycling version of the chaos theory, too: something about a dictator forcing a flight down in Belarus and causing an event cancellation in Ashgabat. 

Yesterday, prior to the cancellation of the Turkmen event, CyclingTips addressed a series of enquiries to the UCI, including the following questions: 

  • The president of Turkmenistan [on Tuesday] said that Turkmenistan has zero cases of COVID-19, and has never had a single case. However, there are reports of widespread pneumonia in Turkmenistan and the country has been in strict lockdown for nine months, which put this claim in extreme doubt. How can the UCI navigate running an event in a COVID-safe way in a country which does not even acknowledge the existence of the disease? Can athletes and delegations feel safe competing there?”
  • Last week the European Track Cycling Championships, to be held in Minsk, was cancelled due to political concerns. Four competing countries – Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Lithuania – boycotted the event unless it was relocated. Given there are widespread human rights abuses in Turkmenistan – including persecution of homosexuality, religious and political minorities – does the UCI have any concerns about athletes and countries boycotting Track Worlds this year?

We did not expect a response, but by scrapping the event perhaps the UCI responded in its own unexpected – but welcome – fashion. 

Where next?

Was the willingness of individual federations to take a stand against authoritarian regimes a factor in the cancellation of Turkmenistan’s Track Worlds? Was the increased media scrutiny? Was the change in dates for the UEC event? Or did something actually change in Turkmenistan, which was previously so bullish about holding the event?

We don’t know, and it seems unlikely that we’ll find out much more of substance – although requests for interviews and further comment have been made.

That leaves only the question of where the World Track Championships will now take place, and when. In a tweet, the UCI announced that the event would be heading to Glasgow – a location that will be hosting the multi-discipline World Super Cycling Championships in 2023.

This tweet – since deleted – suggested that Glasgow would host the event.

Within an hour, that tweet was removed, suggesting someone jumped the gun. Tom Cary of the Telegraph has since pointed out that Glasgow will introduce “a lot of logistical hurdles to overcome..same w/e as road nationals, just after Women’s Tour etc”. 

The UCI has since said only that it is “currently in contact with several potential alternative organisers with a view to moving the event to another venue on the same dates. The name of the new host city will be communicated as soon as possible.”

A tale of two championships

The story of these two track championships – both of which were to be held in dictatorships, with weeks between them, and now will be held in locations unknown, separated by mere days – has been complicated, convoluted and extremely bizarre.

But by the end of it, we got somewhere. We just don’t know where it is.

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