Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Nothing More Than A Façade

The map to the left is a little off when it comes to hockey despite there being the occasional ball hockey game played by Canadian troops in Afghanistan. This part of the world shown in the image is better known for its abilities in soccer and cricket rather than in hockey. It's not like there haven't been success stories where hockey has caught on as niche entertainment, but the Middle East is better known for sweltering temperatures, deserts, and sand than it is for ice, skates, and bodychecking. It seems, however, that one country is getting into the fastest team game thanks to its ambitious leader.

I'm going to preface this entire article from here until further notice with this message: take it with a grain of salt. The information presented below this paragraph is what was found in most news articles thanks to The Associated Press' Alexander Vershinin. What is known is that some parts of this information are true. On the other side of the coin, there may be some very questionable "facts" presented.
According to Vershinin, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan has decided that state enterprises and departments should form a hockey league. Much like a number of the former Russian SuperLeague teams, the teams found in Turkmenistan will be sponsored by the industries and state departments found in that country. Reports state that the Turkmenistan police force are already in the process of setting up a team.

The entire idea of hockey rinks in a country that has 80% of its land covered by the Karakum Desert is made possible by the revenue generated through exports of natural gas which is abundant in Turkmenistan. There have been several arenas built for ice-related activities, and it appears that has spawned the idea that a hockey league will work in Turkmenistan.

President Berdymukhamedov has decided that his country should become a sporting power, and has shown off his athletic side by participating in sports such as volleyball, cycling, judo and taekwondo, and horseback riding. In a recent "Week of Health and Happiness" event, Berdymukhamedov donned the skates and pads and played in a game in a new arena constructed in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan's capital city. He also took part in a time-trial car race during the day, and he emerged the winner in that event.
Ok, that's enough of the faux happy image of Turkmenistan. I had to block the area where the report was being outlined so that there was no confusion between what was reported and what is actually known about Turkmenistan. Remember what I said about a grain of salt? Here's a salt mine worth of information you should know about the country that wants to become a "sporting power". This information will probably get me banned from Turkmenistan, but, being a Westerner as it is, I probably already am.

Prior to Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov being "elected" president, Turkmenistan was ruled by President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov. Yes, that was his title - "President for Life". Niyazov ruled over the country from 1985 to 1991 as the First Secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party until the fall of the Soviet Union. After that, he was "elected" as President of Turkmenistan, and was granted "President for Life" status by the ruling party which was comprised of people hand-chosen by Niyazov. A heart attack in 2006 ended his life and his rule, and it allowed Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov to be elected as president.

If you notice, I've been keeping the word "elected" in quotes. The reason for this is that 99% of voters "elected" Niyazov into office, and 89% "elected" Berdymukhamedov as their leader. And the political parties in Turkmenistan? There's one. So you know exactly how these two men were "elected" into office when their opposition was NO ONE. Oh, and all political meetings are prohibited by law unless government-sanctioned.

In terms of how these rinks and teams are subsidized, Turkmenistan natural gas is piped into Russia to a pretty large and well-known company called Gazprom - the largest sponsor of the KHL! While it's not entirely funding the new league, the KHL's largest sponsor is now technically supporting two leagues! The league will also receive funds generated by cotton production. Approximately half of Turkmenistan's irrigated land has cotton growing on it, making it the tenth-largest cotton producer on the planet.

While the idea of having a hockey league in Turkmenistan could be a one of those "happy feeling" stories, I'm inclined to believe that this move is more about the gratification of the president than it is about building a sporting culture. Approximately 60% of Turkmenistan's five million people are unemployed, and approximately 30% of the working class live below the poverty line. That means that there won't be many people buying tickets to see these hockey games. Then again, it probably doesn't matter for the vast majority of Turkmen since they barely have basic human rights, let alone the right to choose what entertainment they want to see.

If you're looking for information on the Internet about the Turkmenistan league, don't bother. The newspaper is state-owned and all articles are heavily-censored. Any articles found in the newspaper only work to glorify the state and its leader, so that grain of salt about I told you about should be chewed on while reading Alexander Vershinin's AP article above. Internet services are some of the worst in all of Asia, and the state controls the only internet service provider available, Turkmentelekom. Approximately 1.6% of Turkmen have access to the internet, and all of it is siphoned through the censoring ISP. There are fifteen internet cafés open in Ashgabat, but users must show their passports and proof of address and be registered in a special register in order to use the computers and internet at the cafés. According to Reporters Without Borders' 2011 World Press Freedom Index, Turkmenistan ranks as the third-worst country on the planet when it comes to press freedom conditions in the world. Only North Korea and Burma are worse than Turkmenistan. Again, don't bother even looking for information on the hockey league because it won't be found.

If anyone gets injured while playing, it could mean the end of any career. All hospitals outside Ashgabat were closed in 2005 by Niyazov because he believed that anyone sick or ill should come to the capital for treatment. Physicians are poorly-trained in any and all medical procedures, and all modern medicinal practices are virtually non-existent. Free public health care was abolished in 2004 as well, so these state department and industry-sponsored teams better have good health insurance for their players. I can hear you laughing now.

In short, I commend those Turkmen who want to play hockey. There is a great opportunity to enjoy a new sport that is quite foreign in that part of the world. The relief from the searing heat inside an arena will also be a luxury that few will enjoy, but it is available for those lucky enough to play the game. I wish the newest Turkmen hockey players nothing but the best as they embark on this new venture, and I hope they fall in love with the game as much as you and I have.

It's just a shame that the vast majority of the country won't be able to share in any of the accomplishments seen on the ice because they aren't able to attend, they can't access information on the internet, and they may not have the money to even get through the door.

Ain't it true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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