The dictator, the oligarch and the UCI president

When politics, business and sport collide: the strange story of international cycling's dance with one of the world's most notorious dictators.

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Cast your mind back to June. Before the racing season resumed. Before the Tour and Worlds and most of the Classics, when the world was still trying to wrap its head around this pandemic thing.

In that lull, when everyone was otherwise preoccupied and not really thinking about cycling, the UCI awarded a dictator its highest honour, which was all very cool and very normal, especially seeing as it was kept under wraps until CyclingTips broke the story.

To this date, the UCI has made no mention of it anywhere on its website.

Five months later, the dictator in question – the Great Protector himself, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, president of Turkmenistan – is back in the news. And that, dear reader, is something that very much has my attention, because the guy is profoundly interesting.

Berdimuhamedov has a fondness for gold trim – on his clothes, on his buildings, on his Turkmenistan-brand fat-bike – but he has a particular weakness for big golden statues. This is a fact we know from the famous monument ‘Bicycle’, unveiled back in June to immense fanfare and a banger of a soundtrack that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since.

And as of last week, the capital of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat, has another magnificent statue to add to its world-beating collection.

Berdimuhamedov now has a giant golden dog. It’s a six-metre-tall representation of the Alabay sheepdog – Berdimuhamedov’s favourite breed, immortalised in one of his many books – and it has a big LED screen wrapped around its base that plays great doggy moments.

It’s the most garish thing I’ve seen all year. I love it.

Mr Three-Piece-Suit in the above video, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, loves sheepdogs and horses and hip-hop, but he also really loves bike riding, which is why I’m overjoyed to have another excuse to write about him here.

And while I’ve already covered the basic beats of the UCI’s sordid love affair with this dictator at length, as it turns out, that just scratched the surface. I wanted to go deeper.

So deeper I went.

The Dictator and the Oligarch

Over the past five months, I’ve been idly looking deeper into the who, the what, and the why of cycling’s governing body cosying up to Central Asia’s least stable dictator.

At the nucleus of this relationship is the Russian businessman, Igor Viktorovich Makarov.

He’s a retired track cyclist whose website claims that he was “a member of the USSR Olympic national cycling team and a winner of many national and international championships”.

While he was evidently an accomplished rider, that statement has a touch of hyperbole to it: an ex-Soviet athlete that was a contemporary of Makarov’s told CyclingTips that to the best of his knowledge Makarov was never a national champion, and could not have competed at an Olympics during the years he was active due to the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Olympics.

Meanwhile, the great Soviet coach Viktor Kapitonov has been quoted as saying that “Makarov certainly did not have the cycling career he dreamed of … so he wants to catch up today by dominating cycling.”

(Responding to questions from CyclingTips, a spokesperson for Mr Makarov said “he was a longtime member of the USSR National Cycling team” and conceded that he “was selected to be a part of the Olympic team in 1980 and 1984 but did not ultimately compete in the Games.”)

After his cycling career ended, Makarov stepped away from the sport for more than a decade before his past came calling.

Now a billionaire oligarch with a wealth estimated by Forbes at over US$2.1 billion, Makarov’s resources and background meant that he was highly sought after. He bankrolled the Katusha Cycling Team project and is the Honorary President of the Russian Cycling Federation, wielding substantial influence across the politics of cycling in eastern Europe and beyond.

But before he was an international billionaire, Makarov was an Ashgabat boy – rags to riches, born and bred – and his business interests in his homeland are substantial. His fortune was built through a friendship with the previous Turkmen dictator, the spectacularly loopy Sapurmayat Niyazov, with the former-cyclist’s elite connections eventually securing a monopoly on Turkmenistan’s gas supply through the company Makarov founded, Itera.

[ct_blockquote_start no_underline=1]Nothing is free in this country.[ct_blockquote_end]

When Niyazov died and his former-dentist Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov ascended to power, according to leaked diplomatic cables, Itera allegedly bought the new Turkmen dictator a housewarming present of a €60 million superyacht called “Galkynysh” (“Revival”), with which he held cabinet meetings and posed in a jaunty blue and white outfit, wearing a cliché of a sea-man’s hat and with a big pair of binoculars draped around his all-powerful neck.

As one of the expat sources behind the classified cable remarked, “the gift of a yacht might be for an onshore gas deal, a chicken farm, or works already in progress. Nothing is free in this country.” (CyclingTips contacted representatives of Makarov to verify the veracity of this leak. They chose to provide no response to this specific allegation.)

Building cycling

Separately to Itera’s gas interests – which gave it exclusive access to Turkmenistan’s vast and lucrative fields – Makarov’s company has dabbled in various other contracts with the Turkmen regime. Among those was construction of swathes of the Olympic Village (*not actually used in any Olympic Games, but sure) that was built for 2017’s Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. (CyclingTips contacted representatives of Makarov for specific details of Itera’s involvement in the construction of these sporting facilities. They chose to provide no comment.)

Part of Itera was sold as a subsidiary to the Russian state-owned corporation Rosneft, with Makarov rebranding the parent company Areti (Itera, backwards). Areti is based in Switzerland but maintains an office in Ashgabat, one of its key markets, and Makarov is a regular visitor to Ashgabat in one or other of his private jets. On some of those visits, he has brought senior members of the UCI, including the last three presidents.

The state-of-the-art velodrome that is included in the sports complex that Makarov helped build will host the 2021 World Track Cycling Championships – another major sporting event that will help sports-wash Turkmenistan’s appalling human rights record.

There’s a transactional element to it all: the UCI receives the greatest proportion of its annual revenue from hosting rights for World Championships. And in exchange for the hosting fee paid to the UCI, Turkmenistan receives an enhanced international profile that will boost its business interests and soften its sharp edges.

Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov celebrates the unveiling of a big golden monument to cycling on the outskirts of Ashgabat. Not in frame: human rights abuses.

The mystery of 2026

In addition to the 2021 World Track Cycling Championships, Turkmen state media has made repeated claims that the country will host the 2026 Road World Championships, again seemingly under Makarov’s guiding hand.

Responding to this, the UCI told CyclingTips that the location of the 2026 Worlds won’t be determined until September 2021, and that Turkmenistan had not submitted an application by the September 2019 deadline.

However, further questioning by CyclingTips revealed that Portland – another city that has publicly announced it is vying for the 2026 Worlds – had not filed a letter of intent by September 2019, either. “It simply doesn’t make sense,” a source told CyclingTips. “The UCI has never cut off bidding for a World Champs two years before [they’re] considered and six years before the event.”

The UCI, meanwhile, repeatedly seems to have used the September 2019 deadline as a smokescreen, despite this having been extended to December 1, 2020. The organisation conspicuously failed to respond to CyclingTips’ questioning about whether Turkmenistan had applied after September 2019.

Meanwhile, Makarov was quoted in Turkmen media in late September 2020 expressing his delight in Turkmenistan’s plans to host the 2026 Road World Championships, saying that “the president has already provided support in this area, and gave the relevant orders.”

Fig.1: Winners are grinners.

Lappartient is apparently across the proposal, too, with Turkmen media claiming that in April 2019 he “expressed sincere gratitude to [Berdimuhamedov] for supporting …[the] organization of the UCI Road World Championships in our country in 2026,” with the Frenchman noting “that Turkmenistan has all necessary conditions and infrastructure.”

This stands in marked contrast to Brian Cookson’s impression from a 2015 visit, with the ex-UCI president telling CyclingTips in a statement that while the velodrome was impressive, “it was clear to me that there was no capacity in the country to organise an event at this stage, and substantial external technical assistance would have been needed to actually put an event on.”

(Speaking to CyclingTips, a representative of Mr Makarov said that “Choosing which country to hold a UCI event in is a communal decision that goes through every level of the organization. The Committee chose Turkmenistan as the host county [sic] for the World Track Racing Championship for many reasons, including the country’s existing infrastructure. While preparing to host the Asian Martial Arts Games in 2017, Turkmenistan built a variety of superlative sporting venues, such as a world-class indoor cycling track, the quality of which was appreciated by UCI representatives.”)

Endorsing a dictator

Makarov, who acts as an advisor to the Turkmen government in gas and oil, as well as cycling, was – along with UCI President David Lappartient and The Great Protector – one of just three people on the televised phone call that installed Berdimuhamedov as recipient of the prestigious UCI Order, which you’ll remember was our entry point into this labyrinth in the first place.

That’s a mysterious award that doesn’t appear in the UCI’s constitution and hasn’t been given to anyone, dictator or otherwise, for at least 13 years – and repeated requests for a list of past recipients went unanswered by the UCI.

Nevertheless, Lappartient said its issuance to Berdimuhamedov was “unanimously” agreed upon by the UCI Management Committee – a body which includes Igor Makarov.

According to the UCI Constitution, the UCI Management Committee is also responsible for deciding the venues of World Championships: like the 2021 track one that will be held in Ashgabat and the 2026 road one that Turkmenistan seems convinced that it’s already secured the rights to.

[ct_blockquote_start no_underline=1]Turkmen media has made repeated claims that the country will host the 2026 Road World Championships.[ct_blockquote_end]

Let’s connect some dots: Igor Makarov – a senior member of the sport’s bureaucracy – has advised and endorsed at least one Turkmen bid for cycling World Championships that stands to reinforce his substantial business relationships in the country, conducted in facilities that his company helped build, and then, as a bonus, played a role in the orchestration of a prestigious award for his associate, the President.

This isn’t the first instance where Makarov has been linked to a World Championships bid, either. The 2013 Track World Championships were awarded to Minsk, Belarus – the capital of a country ruled under the iron fist of Alexander Lukashenko. At the time, Areti was engaged in a multi-million dollar construction project, which at the time aroused some concerns of a conflict of interest influencing Minsk’s successful bid.

[ct_blockquote_start no_underline=1]Should a sporting body be expected to take a higher moral ground than the broader international community? Is it dumb idealism to hope that it should at least try?[ct_blockquote_end]

For what it’s worth, Makarov’s register of interests on the UCI website says that he “[does] not see any facts and circumstances that might be subject to possible conflict of interest”, and representatives of Makarov say that he is blameless of bribery, corruption or any improper conduct.

In response to CyclingTips’ previous article on the subject, which mentioned a reported FBI probe of Makarov and Itera for an alleged attempt to bribe a congressman, representatives noted that “neither Mr. Makarov, Itera or anyone associated with the company [have been] charged, prosecuted or publicly accused by authorities of bribery or any similar crime”.

Responding to more recent questions on Makarov’s advisory role working for the Turkmen government, a spokesperson said that this was “short-term” and Makarov “received no salary, payment or preferential treatment.”

Recent Turkmen media reports, however, show that Makarov occupied this role for more than a year, and at least as recently as September 2020, where he promised Berdimuhamedov that Areti “would continue to fulfil all partner obligations, taking an active part in the large-scale transformation programmes, launched in the country.”

Ethics and regulations

The UCI has been outspoken on its quest for diversity and inclusion.

Meanwhile, the UCI has been outspoken about celebrating diversity and inclusivity, with a code of ethics that states that “the persons bound by the Code shall not undertake any action, use any denigrating words, or any other means, that offend the human dignity of a person or group of persons, on any grounds including but not limited to skin colour, race, religion, ethnic or social origin, political opinion, sexual orientation, disability or any other reason contrary to human dignity.”

That same code of ethics includes an article 7.2, which states that “persons bound by the Code [including members of the management committee] shall not, directly or indirectly, offer, promise, solicit, give or accept any form of undue remuneration or commission, nor any concealed benefit or service of any nature.”

Simultaneously, the UCI has quietly shown favour to a dictator who has criminalised homosexuality, has a long history of human rights abuses, and presides over the second-worst press freedom in the world. In the process, a prominent member of the management committee has plausibly profited from the UCI’s treatment of Turkmenistan and its president.

[ct_blockquote_start no_underline=1]The UCI has shown favour to a dictator who has criminalised homosexuality, has a long history of human rights abuses, and presides over the second-worst press freedom in the world. [ct_blockquote_end]

When CyclingTips challenged the UCI on the juxtaposition between its words and actions, the governing body offered no response. However, a UCI spokesperson told CyclingTips that “Mr Makarov … has not been involved in any of the deliberations regarding matters related to Turkmenistan in accordance with article 56 par. 4 of the UCI Constitution and has not been subject to any related proceedings before the UCI Ethics Commission.”

A spokesperson of Mr Makarov said that “As a native of Turkmenistan, Mr. Makarov also understands the country’s culture and customs better than any other UCI member. His activities within UCI are entirely separate from his business, assets and projects in Turkmenistan.”

Nonetheless, a request for information about the originating management committee member[s] behind the proposal to award Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov with the UCI Order was declined. So too was a request for the minutes of the relevant management committee meeting. Numerous requests for comment from individual committee members in the hope of shedding some light have, likewise, gone unanswered.

The power behind the throne?

Makarov keeps a low public profile, but he has had a long and lasting influence on the governance of the sport of cycling. He was elected to the European Cycling Union (UEC), soon after a million dollar “donation” was announced from his company, Areti.

In the lead-up to the 2013 election for the UCI presidency, Makarov and then-president Pat McQuaid collaborated on a World Championships bid for Turkmenistan, with McQuaid, extraordinarily, having signed a contract with Makarov to act as a consultant for the Turkmen bid while simultaneously serving as UCI President.

Four months later McQuaid withdrew his support, recognising it as the substantial conflict of interest it was.

McQuaid and Makarov’s relationship deteriorated when the Russian’s team, Katusha, was denied a WorldTour license due to multiple doping violations and an alleged instance of race-fixing, with the dispute eventually reaching as far as the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Katusha’s Alexandr Kolobnev and Astana’s Alexandre Vinokourov were probed by prosecutors for an alleged €150,000 bribe at the 2010 edition of Liége-Bastogne-Liége.

The frosty regard between Makarov and McQuaid also included a falling-out over a never-run Tour of Russia. CyclingTips has in its possession a leaked document showing that the influence of Vladimir Putin over the Russian Cycling Federation was a source of tension within the UCI; the Tour of Russia’s genesis was from a personal discussion between former UCI president Hein Verbruggen and Putin himself.

The leaked communication shows an apparent attempt by McQuaid to apply pressure to Makarov to push through the race in his role as President of the Russian Federation – which CyclingTips understands would have earned the UCI a €5.5 million fee per annum. This was unsuccessful, and the proposal fell over on the eve of contracts being signed, to the UCI’s chagrin.

The Tour of Beijing – an unpopular but lucrative event that set a template for the organisation’s willingness to export cycling to fringe markets for a fee – ran from 2011-2014, following a similar model to that which was planned for the Tour of Russia.

Makarov later allegedly leaked a damaging dossier that sought to destabilise McQuaid, gave explosive interviews saying that it would be “devastating” for cycling if McQuaid was returned as president, and publicly threw his weight behind Brian Cookson’s ultimately successful bid for UCI presidency in 2013.

The oligarch and the UCI president

The same year, Makarov also helped orchestrate David Lappartient’s candidacy for presidency of the European Cycling Union (EUC), via what l’Equipe calls “a well-oiled strategy” that involved “soliciting voting members by promising all kinds of wonders to each federation.”

Weeks after Lappartient became president of the EUC, Areti’s sponsorship of the organisation allegedly increased five-fold, and Lappartient’s stepping stone toward the UCI Presidency was assured.

[ct_blockquote_start no_underline=1]Makarov keeps a low public profile, but he has had a long and lasting influence on the sport.[ct_blockquote_end]

In 2017, at the UCI Congress at the Bergen World Championships, Lappartient stunned the incumbent UCI leadership to easily win the presidential election, 37 votes to 8 – thanks in large part to the European Confederation’s 15 votes flowing toward its president.

Brian Cookson (left) at the moment he learned that he had been steamrolled in the UCI presidential election by a very chuffed David Lappartient (right). Photo: Simon Wilkinson.

Years later, those attached to the Cookson campaign are philosophical, with one source telling CyclingTips that “something had changed between when we did our lobbying and the vote … clearly there was some discussion going on behind the scenes somewhere to back a certain ticket of delegates and not another group of delegates – including the president.”

Lappartient’s campaign promises included an unexpected pledge of €2-4 million to each of the Continental Federations – double what Cookson had committed to in his speech – with the additional funds to be made up from donations from undisclosed “private partners”.

An anonymous source quoted by CyclingNews on the subject said that “Lappartient is elected first of all president of the Europe Federation with huge assistance from Makarov, then elected president of the UCI with again huge assistance from Makarov … Lappartient is in the palm of Makarov.” And indeed, after Lappartient’s landside in Bergen, according to l’Equipe, Makarov was seen at the UCI Congress “furtively accompanied by his court of suitors”, “boasting as if he himself came to be elected president. ‘It’s also my victory,’ he laughed mischievously, knowing that his place on the management committee gave him an ideal position.”

(The private donors alluded to by Lappartient in his campaign speech have evidently not been called upon, with the UCI telling CyclingTips that the “solidarity programme” has “for the time being … not included contributions” from the private sector.)

Lappartient’s regime

Lappartient’s four-year term as UCI president began that September in Bergen, and over the past three years he has seldom been far from the sport’s limelight.

In his time at the helm, however, Lappartient has also presided over substantial staff turnover. CyclingTips understands that in the first 18 months of Lappartient’s presidency alone at least 10 senior members of staff left the organisation – including the Head of Legal, Head of Communications, Head of Marketing, Sports Director, the Head of Anti-Doping, and the Director of Cabinet – a new position introduced by Lappartient, awarded to the campaign manager behind his presidential run, with whom Lappartient was close.

Lappartient’s UCI has focused heavily on technological fraud, one of the Frenchman’s key campaign pillars. Jean-Christophe Peraud – a former second-place finisher at the Tour de France known to Lappartient through his role at the French Federation – was installed to headline this battle, and later removed as part of a restructure soon after a multi-year French criminal investigation found “nothing” to substantiate any prevalence of mechanical doping in cycling.

Gabriele Fioni (deputy director of CEA Tech), David Lappartient (UCI president), Jean-Christophe Peraud (Manager of Equipment and the Fight against Technological Fraud) and Bob Stapleton (President of the Commission for the Fight against Technological Fraud) at the UCI’s launch of the new methods to combat technological fraud in March 2018. Photo: Shane Stokes

CyclingTips understands that there has also been considerable internal angst within the UCI due to a number of close relationships between senior members of staff.

For example, the Director-General, Amina Lanaya, holds one of the most powerful positions in the organisation, and whilst in this role her husband Peter van den Abeele was promoted to Sports Director – a position where he directly reports to his wife. “It’s a very cosy arrangement,” one source told CyclingTips; another described it as having contributed to a “strange environment”. Meanwhile, two other senior members of staff were widely understood to have been engaged in an extramarital affair.

In addition to the employee churn at the UCI over Lappartient’s term have been damaging revelations of a “reign of terror” at the World Cycling Centre – the UCI’s crown jewel and symbolic expression of the sport’s desire for globalisation.

For 10 years, this prestigious facility was under the directorship of the decorated French track sprinter Fred Magne. Magne reportedly bullied trainees at the Centre, excluded African riders, failed to account for Muslim dietary requirements, made trainees run personal errands for him, and blackmailed employees.

In addition to these allegations, CyclingTips understands that Magne promoted his girlfriend to High Performance Manager, and misused company funds by giving custom bikes to friends and associates. Magne and his lawyers have reportedly disputed all allegations, but he has declined media requests for comment, citing a confidentiality clause.

Although Magne was in March 2019 removed from his position due to his alleged misconduct, a source speaking on the condition of anonymity told CyclingTips that the UCI paid him a year’s wage regardless, as a severance fee.

The World Cycling Centre, Aigle, Switzerland. Image: UCI.

Infighting and dissatisfaction

The UCI’s latest Annual Report reveals an organisation that is fixated on international growth, while navigating a challenging financial situation precipitated by declining funds in the years of Lappartient’s presidency, and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But any projection of expansion and outward strength conceals a weak foundation.

The organisation has also been involved in a series of high-profile stoushes with members of the international cycling fraternity. The UCI has earmarked €1 million to fight the breakaway organisation Velon in court, using money from the WorldTour emergency fund – a pool that teams and race organisers contribute to. Velon, an organisation owned by the teams that are its members, is therefore locked in a legal battle with the UCI, with critics feeling that the governing body is using the teams’ money to fight against the teams’ interests.

Michal Kwiatkowski was visibly delighted to meet the new UCI president in Bergen.

Meanwhile, the AIGCP (Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels), which is the representative body of teams, has a frosty relationship with the UCI due to perceived interference in commercial interests and a perception of general ineptitude. Lappartient has been publicly dismissive of the AIGCP’s concerns, labelling their complaints on more than one occasion as “fake news“.

Simultaneously, the CPA (Cyclistes Professionelles Associes) – a representative body of the riders, as distinct from the AIGCP – has been seen by many riders as an increasingly lame duck operating under the UCI’s auspices, while any criticism of the CPA has likewise been labelled by Lappartient as “fake news“.

The situation has since become further fragmented by the formation of the Rider’s Union, a splinter body that is campaigning for better representation of rider interests.

In short, the International Cycling Union lacks unity.

[ct_blockquote_start no_underline=1]Lappartient has been dismissive of criticism from the AIGCP, and criticism of the CPA – labelling both as “fake news”.[ct_blockquote_end]

The mayor

That lack of unity also seems to exist in the figure of Lappartient himself. For the duration of his term, Lappartient has served not just as UCI President – a role that yields an annual wage of CHF257,000 (US$282,000) and a CHF54,000 (US$59,000) allowance, as well as a car and “social charges and pension costs” of CHF117,000 (US$128,000) – but also as the Mayor of Sarzeau, a small town in Brittany, France, that is Lappartient’s home.

This is not a ceremonial position – a search of municipal records shows that there is a €25,752 (US$30,500) wage.

CyclingTips understands that, following internal concerns about Lappartient’s attention being split between his two jobs, upon being elected UCI president he made a verbal commitment to stand down as mayor at the next election. However, in March 2020, Lappartient stood for re-election and won. Unlike previous UCI presidents, “Lappartient is a politician,” CyclingTips was told – a fact that encompasses his drive, his ambition and his skill as a negotiator.

Lappartient’s prominent role on the sporting stage has had some positive ramifications for Sarzeau and the surrounding region. The town secured hosting rights to stage 4 of the 2018 Tour de France, and a June 2018 meeting of the UCI Management Committee was quietly handed to the tiny neighbouring village of Arzon.

But while Lappartient’s powerful position in Brittany brings prosperity and prestige to the region, there’s another side to the coin: the UCI has a workaholic at the helm, pulled in opposing directions, with a punishing schedule across his two jobs that routinely stretches to “over 85 hours a week,” according to Lappartient. “To be honest, it’s not easy … Physically, it’s a little hard, but I’m not complaining because I wanted it.”

Bridging the distance

Unlike his predecessor, Brian Cookson, Lappartient has not made the move to Switzerland, with his two jobs requiring Lappartient to split his time between the UCI headquarters in Aigle, and Sarzeau, almost a thousand kilometres away.

According to one source, Lappartient has “essentially been in the office one day a week at the best of times, because he’s either travelling or in Sarzeau.” This physical divide is exacerbated by a strong managerial hand. “He’s an unhelpful mix of a controlling president who wants everything to go through him and almost always absent, causing paralysis,” CyclingTips was told. “He wants to control everything.”

[ct_blockquote_start no_underline=1]Lappartient splits his time between Switzerland – where he is UCI President – and Brittany, where he is a town mayor.[ct_blockquote_end]

Until COVID-19 hit, Lappartient maintained a frantic travel schedule since his installation as President, with travel expenses of over CHF125,000 (US$137,000) incurred in 2019 and CHF134,000 (US$147,000) in 2018. In January 2020, Lappartient told CyclingTips that his time was split half between travel and time in the office, with 61 trips abroad to 30 countries in the previous year.

That tally notably included a visit to Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan, where Lappartient says that he was “lucky to participate in the [World Bicycle Day] celebrations, including the mass cycle marathon, together with the President.”

Alongside Berdimuhamedov, Lappartient toured the Ashgabat Velodrome, which will host 2021’s Track Cycling World Championships, and obligingly posed for state media wearing a Turkmenistan tracksuit.

The velodrome – immaculate, pristine, unmarked by competition – has the capacity for 6,000 spectators, although given the restrictive nature of the regime that built it, the presence of either international media or spectators next year is far from assured.

Where next?

As most of the world could surmise, October’s World Track Championships face an uncertain future due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. That fact might come as more of a surprise to citizens of Turkmenistan, seeing as the C-word has been banned and the country still does not officially recognise any cases.

Ashgabat offers a curated version of reality. Photo: John Parelka, Flickr Commons.

But behind the facade, all is not well in Turkmenistan. The few reports to slip the Turkmen cage say that local hospitals have been swamped with victims of “pneumonia”. The regime has since backflipped after initially arresting people found wearing facemasks, and is now forcing students to sign a pledge to wear masks to protect themselves from “harmful dust” blowing in from the Aral Sea (which, incidentally, might also be the case).

The UCI told CyclingTips that “as any organiser of a UCI event, a health protocol shall be required to reduce as much as possible the risks of transmission of COVID-19 in and around the Championships” – although it can likely be assumed that there will be a lot of euphemisms employed in the process.

[ct_blockquote_start no_underline=1]The UCI has pursued – or been manoeuvred into – a relationship with an international pariah.[ct_blockquote_end]

If the championships proceed, the UCI and competing nations will get a challenging lesson in how to navigate a major sporting event held against the backdrop of a pandemic, in a country where it doesn’t exist, and where discussing it is illegal.

The UCI would say that its charter is to bring the sport to the world, and the world has places like Turkmenistan – and the UCI is right. Meanwhile, many governments around the world have cordial trade relations with Turkmenistan, even if they would not outwardly condone most of the actions that the regime takes.

In that context, should a sporting body be expected to take a higher moral ground than the broader international community? Is it dumb idealism to hope that it should at least try?

By dancing with a dictator, however, the UCI is learning about the uncomfortable realities of totalitarianism. That’s a lesson that could have been anticipated, and could have been avoided. The UCI chose to pursue – or was manoeuvred into – a relationship with an international pariah, the full extent of which it has tried to conceal and downplay. In the process, it has sowed a bitter crop in the betrayal of its loftier ideals.

The whole situation – the coronavirus cover-up, the UCI’s endorsement of a dictator, the machinations behind the scenes and the apparent self-interest at the core of the decisions leading up to it – would be absurd, if there wasn’t such a treacherous undercurrent of tragedy.

But then, this is a drama that began with Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov – Great Protector, prolific author, lover of fatbikes, architect of giant golden dog statues.

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