Personality cultism — the performance enhancement drug of totalitarianism

Totalitarian dictators always come first place. (Photographer unknown.)

Editor’s note: Turkmemistan’s president was recently awarded a black belt in Karate, sending NewEurasia’s Annasoltan into fits about the abysmal state of her country’s athletics. She reviews some of the more tragicomic sports-related elements of totalitarianism.

Our beloved “Arkadag” boasts a seventh dan black belt in Taekwondo. He also recently won the tenth dan black belt in Karate. This impressive feat was enshrined in a diploma awarded by the World Traditional Shotokan-Karate Fudokan Do Federation “[in] recognition of the importance of large scale activity in Turkmenistan regarding physical fitness and sports”, according to Turkmen state media.

Such an accolade seems absurd in light of our country’s abysmal performance at the Olympics this year. In almost all categories, Turkmen competitors were behind their rivals, scoring at the bottom in most sports, and generally doing the worst of all the Central Asian countries. Not even the kind of sport we should be good at, like wrestling or weightlifting, did we perform even a smidgen well.

The Olympic games were broadcast to the people of Turkmenistan via our nation’s official sports channel, but no amount of censorship – possibly our nation’s only true Olympic-level speciality – could cover up the humiliation.

The fiasco was topped by the outlandish performance of a Turkmen boxing judge presiding over a 56 kg boxing match between Azerbaijani and Japanese competitors. Although the Japenese boxer had clearly won, the judge declared the Azerbaijani the winner, sparking a scandal. His ruling was overturned in an appeal, and the judge was consequently disqualified and sent back home.

Performance enhancing personality cultism

In his speech during a cabinet meeting after the Turkmen 2012 Olympics team returned home, Berdimuhammedov’s disappointment was obvious, especially because he, a trained dentist and former Health Ministry official, is so closely linked to the country’s sports endeavors. For instance, he resurrected gym classes in schools, which had been canceled by Niyazov. “Health Day” (April 7) was held with pomp and grandeur this year, and government ministers are obliged to participate in the “health path” along the foothills of Kopetdag mountains.

Beyond just show, Berdimuhammedov has been building infrastructure across the country: stadiums, tennis courts, hippodromes, sports pools, health centers, gyms. These are welcome improvements; not so welcome is the notorious Olympic Village under construction in Ashgabat. Meanwhile, he has also gained Turkmenistan the honor of hosting the 2017 Asian Indoor Games and Martial Games – now if only we can win some medals in 2017.

Of course, the population receives regular injections of personalty cultism, that performance enhancement drug of all totalitarian regimes. A hilarious moment came in April, when Berdimuhammedov inaugurated the country’s first car race – by winning it. He’s also written a book about our nation’s famed Ahal-Teke horses, and under his instruction a horse stallion is being trained. Oh, and did I mention that he has brought ice hockey to our desert country? Yes, he did.

Build people, not stadiums

My countrymen appreciate the new infrastructure (well, maybe not the ice hockey rink), but they generally feel that what really needs to be built aren’t facilities, but actual athletes. And that means: bring in foreign trainers, competent ones familiar with international methods and standards. But, of course, to do that would require providing financial support to regular human beings, not to construction firms and the president’s inner circle.

Talented people exist everywhere, and even the poorest of countries can perform spectacularly in sports – just look at Jamaica. Heck, even Tajikistan does pretty well for itself, considering its wretched post-civil war conditions; they certainly are a force to be reckoned with in wrestling and judo, not to mention the ancient Persian martial art of zurkhaneh.

However, I suspect that developing real athletes would risk drawing attention away from our supernatural president – martial artists, horseback rider and race car driver par excellence. That we perform so terribly on the international stage and yet our (obviously not in good shape) president can perform so spectacularly on our national stage, far out of the reach of criticism, does not bode well for our national health, mental as much as physical.

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