The government of the secretive central Asian nation Turkmenistan published photos of what it claimed to be thousands of cyclists celebrating World Health Day on Tuesday with a crowded ride through the nation’s capital, Ashgabat – one of several sporting events seemingly held with no concern for the Chinese coronavirus.
The Turkmen government also published photos of contact sporting events such as wrestling and martial arts, which most of the world has canceled to prevent the spread of the deadly pathogen originating in central Wuhan, China.
An official statement from the government of dictator Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov celebrated the many “lovers of a healthy lifestyle throughout Turkmenistan who followed” Berdimuhamedov’s example by participating in sports. The president himself spent the day partaking in equestrian sports in Ashgabat’s “Olympic village,” which the regime built despite, as the Asian current affairs publication the Diplomat noted, Turkmenistan never even winning an Olympic medal, much less hosting an Olympic Games.
The government claimed that about 3,500 people took their bicycles on a tour of Ashgabat and that, nationwide, 7,000 people participated in the cycling movement. Judo, boxing, and other combat sport tournaments also allegedly took place. Photos showed men participating in martial arts and thousands of riders of green bicycles zipping between the bright white skyscrapers of Ashgabat.
Berdimuhamedov celebrated the country’s “great successes” in promoting athletics, the government noted. Its statement applauded the dictator for allegedly being an exemplary physical specimen who “regularly trains, runs, rides a bicycle, and drives a sports car and a horse equally brilliantly.”
“At a time when the situation with coronavirus remains tense in many countries of the world, a calm epidemiological situation is ensured in Turkmenistan thanks to timely measures,” the government’s statement read. Turkmenistan is believed to have significantly cracked down on entry into Ashgabat and shut its borders in March to prevent foreigners from bringing in the virus, though Turkmenistan’s dictatorship already strictly limits tourism and travel into the country from abroad.
The statement was a rare mention of the Chinese coronavirus pandemic in a country that, according to Reporters Without Borders, is detaining people caught in public discussing the pandemic or wearing medical masks to protect themselves. The journalist organization said that local reporters had evidence of undercover police hiding among crowds on public transit and detaining individuals mentioning the virus. Berdimuhamedov also reportedly banned state media from discussing the coronavirus specifically. The government has instead reportedly distributed vague guidelines on communicable diseases.
The Diplomat cast some doubt on the veracity of the mass sporting events in Ashgabat on Wednesday. Citing dissident media – only state media is legal in Turkmenistan – the outlet noted that photos were circulating of many of the bicycle allegedly used for the cycling event padded together in trucks. Some reports from student groups suggested that they had received notices that the events were canceled.
NBC News noted that state television networks broadcast what they claimed to be footage of the sporting events, allegedly of “hundreds of people wearing identical tracksuits conducting coordinated exercise in close quarters.” NBC did not make any mention of the footage looking old or in any way suspicious. The photos posted on the official Turkmenistan website also did not appear to have any online history prior to being published on the website – not a full confirmation that they are new, but the fact eliminates the possibility that the government recycled photos published in the past of similar events.
NBC also reported that Berdimuhamedov had made at least one other mention of the coronavirus outbreak weeks ago, claiming that a Turkmen herb could cure the disease.
Turkmenistan and China have close diplomatic relations, as Turkmenistan actively participates in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s plan to dominate the world’s most important trade routes. Turkmenistan, in turn, offers China its largest share of natural gas imports.
At press time, Turkmenistan claims to have documented zero cases of Chinese coronavirus in the country.