ASHGABAT (TCA) — The opening ceremony of the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG) took place in Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat, on September 17 with the participation of a number of heads of state and government, including the presidents of Afghanistan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
According to organizers, some 5,500 athletes from 62 countries will be contesting in 21 disciplines — including tennis, ju-jitsu, cycling track, weightlifting, and taekwondo — to September 27, making it Asia’s second-largest sporting event, RFE/RL reported.
Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov appears to want to use the AIMAG to cast Turkmenistan as a regional success story and sports hub.
But human rights groups have raised concern over rights abuses in the run-up of the competition, including “massive housing violations” in Ashgabat by Turkmen authorities and their continued clampdown on independent voices.
Turkmenistan expects tens of thousands of foreigners to visit the Games.
The Turkmen government has spent billions of dollars preparing for the Games — the most prominent international event ever held in independent Turkmenistan — including some $2.5 billion on a mammoth new airport built in the shape of a falcon in flight.
It also built an Olympic Complex located on 150 hectares on the outskirts of the capital and numerous state-of-the-art sporting facilities — including the Olympic Stadium capable of holding 45,000 fans, a 6,000-seat indoor cycling track, a water-sports complex, an indoor tennis court — complete with a circular 5-kilometer monorail system to carry athletes, officials, and fans around the complex. Turkmen officials have said they were planning to bid for hosting other major sports events, including the Olympic Games.
Meanwhile, human rights groups have said homeowners and residents in Ashgabat have had to endure “massive housing violations” ahead of the competition.
The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) in Vienna and the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on September 4 that the Turkmen government had “forcibly evicted” homeowners in Ashgabat and demolished their homes “without adequate compensation” in preparation for the games.
The two human rights watchdogs have called on the Olympic Council of Asia, as the organizer of the AIMAG, to remind Turkmenistan of its rights obligations.
In an effort to improve the country’s image when foreigners start arriving to compete in, or attend, AIMAG, Turkmen authorities have banned the sale of alcohol in Ashgabat, restricted the movement of residents of 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.