The Games opened yesterday until 27 September with 62 delegations and 5,500 athletes competing in 21 disciplines. Turkmenistan wants to revamp its image spending billions on new facilities. Human rights groups are critical because the rights of homeowners and residents have been violated in order to “standardise” the capital’s appearance.
Ashgabat (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games opened yesterday in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, in the presence of several heads of state, including the presidents of Afghanistan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
The Games provide an opportunity for the former Soviet republic and its current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, to cast the country as a regional success story and sports hub.
Some 62 delegations are present with about 5,500 athletes competing in 347 medal events in 21 disciplines from 17 to 27 September. The youngest athlete is said to be a 13-year-old Pakistani swimmer, Jahan Ara Nabi.
The Games include several sports originating in Asia, including jujitsu and taekwondo. Tens of thousands of visitors from abroad are expected, an unusual event for a country that tends to shun outsiders.
Competitions began on Saturday. At present, Turkmenistan tops the medal counts with 41 (16 gold, 15 silver, 10 bronze), followed by Uzbekistan (24), and Thailand (7).
“Sport promotes peace and unites people and the main message is peace,” said Husain Al Musallam, director general of the Olympic Council of Asia.
“Asia has a lot of political challenges,” he explained, “so let’s get all the kids of Asia and everybody, government and non-government, national Olympic Committees and Confederations, together, to enjoy these 10 days, to work and talk positively and cohabit.”
The Turkmen government spent billions of dollars preparing for the games, including a huge US$ 2.5 billion new airport built in the shape of a falcon in flight, a 150-hectare Olympic complex (US$ 5 billion), numerous state-of-the-art sporting facilities as well as a circular 5-kilometre monorail system to carry athletes, officials, and fans around the complex.
Turkmen officials announced that they want to host major sporting events, including the Olympic Games.
However, the Turkmen government has been criticised by human rights groups for its restrictive measures against Ashgabat residents and for "massive housing violations".
On 4 September, the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that thousands of homeowners and residents were evicted ahead of the Games, and their homes demolished “without adequate compensation” with the apparent aim of standardising “the city’s appearance."
Radio Free Europe has also reported that Turkmen authorities have banned the sale of alcohol in Ashgabat, restricted the movement of residents from the provinces to the capital, ordered former inmates to stay away from the games' venues, and tried to clear the city of stray dogs and cats as well as child beggars.
The Turkmen government had already been accused of “squeezing” and repressing its people in preparation for the Games.