President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov (right, dashing white tracksuit) unveils a big cycling statue on World Bicycle Day. (Photo by IGOR SASIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Cycling’s favourite dictator is stepping aside

Change is afoot in the cycling-mad country of Turkmenistan.

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In news that has rocked the central Asian nation of Turkmenistan to its core, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has called an early presidential ‘election‘ (😉 ) and announced his intention to stand aside. According to Turkmen state media, Berdimuhamedov “stressed that two years ago he reached the age of the Prophet” [ed. he is 65] and that it was time for a new democratically elected (😉 ) president to take the reins. 

“The road to public administration must be given to young leaders,” Berdimuhamedov said, before humbly noting his own act of “political heroism”. 

Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov’s only son – Serdar Berdimuhamedov – is widely tipped to take over from his father. Serdar, who is very neutrally styled in state media as “the son of the nation”, is 40 years old and holds a number of senior positions in Turkmen society, including a role as vice-premier. 

He takes after his father in several key interests. He is a lover of the Akhal Teke horse, and president of the Akhal Teke Horse Breeding Association – a position formerly held by his father, the self-proclaimed ‘People’s Horse Breeder’. He is chairperson of the Alabay Dog Association – a breed that his father unveiled an enormous golden statue of in 2021. His favourite expression when talking to subordinates is, allegedly, “I will wring your neck”. He knows his way around a good tracksuit. 

Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov (foreground); Serdar Berdimuhamedov (resplendent astride the glorious Akhal Teke, the Most Beautiful Horse and Pride of Democratically Elected Turkmenistan, Motherland of Neutrality).

More importantly – and relevantly, for our interests – is the fact that Serdar is a Sport, Sport, Sport enthusiast. He holds the title of ‘Honoured Coach of Turkmenistan’. He’s also the current president of Turkmenistan’s National Olympic Committee, which means he indirectly oversees cycling in a country that has recently become synonymous with the sport for all of the wrong reasons. 

Serdar’s dad, Berdimuhamedov Senior, will be familiar with our readers for his part in one of the most labyrinthine scandals to afflict cycling’s governance over the past few years.

The current Turkmen dictator – who claims a role in having established the UN’s World Bicycle Day, which was actually an initiative of a Polish-American academic – is a known bicycle fancier, having invested billions of dollars in the establishment of sporting infrastructure in the capital city, Ashgabat. That included a very fancy velodrome, which was selected by the UCI as the host of the 2021 World Track Cycling Championship.

Representatives of the Turkmen track squad in training.

The UCI sealed the deal in 2020 by stealthily handing over a prestigious, seldom-issued UCI Order commendation for Berdimuhamedov, which it has never publicly announced. When the UCI was questioned over why it was awarding world championships and honours to a dictator that presides over North Korea-tier corruption and human rights abuses, it defended Berdimuhamedov’s “commitment to our sport through world-class competitions, mass participation events and the promotion of cycling for all”. The apparent existence of a web of preferential arrangements for senior members of the sport’s administration had absolutely nothing to do with it.

No matter. There was substantial public outcry, and Track Worlds were eventually removed from Turkmenistan and relocated to Roubaix, France. Event organisers cited the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for the change, despite Turkmenistan A) not recognising the existence of COVID-19 and B) having pledged to offer a wide choice of vaccines against it to any athletes attending the event

Serdar will stand for election as president on March 12, as the candidate for his father’s Democratic (😉 ) Party. There are supposedly three political parties in Turkmenistan, but the President typically handpicks his own sham rivals. In the 2017 election, Berdimuhamedov secured close to 98% of all votes – a landslide that is likely to repeat for Serdar. 

To wild acclaim, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov attends a Horse Beauty Contest. (Photo by Baris Oral/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In retirement, the departing despot will doubtless find time for many spirited rides around the countryside on one or other of his fleet of fatbikes. Serdar, meanwhile, seems likely to continue to pursue Turkmenistan’s sporting glory and relationship with the adoring sporting bodies of the world. 

CyclingTips wishes all parties the most cordial of regards, and looks forward to attentively reporting on their adventures into the future.

Update March 16: In news that will shock precisely nobody, Serdar Berdimuhamedov won the presidential elections with a surprisingly modest landslide of 72.97% of the vote. His opposing candidates, in order of most likely to find themselves in a camp to least likely, are listed below with their share of the vote:

  • Khydyr Nunnaev – 11.09%
  • Agadzhan Bekmyradov – 7.22%
  • Berdymammet Kurbanov – 2.22%
  • Perhat Begenjov – 2.02%
  • Maksatmyrat Ovezgeldiev – 1.16%
  • Maksat Odeshov – 1.15%
  • Kakageldi Sariyev – 1.09%
  • Babamyrat Meredov – 1.08%

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