Daniel Etchells

Health. Inspiration. Friendship.

The motto for the Ashgabat 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG) was chosen after being submitted in a contest by Kumush Allabaeva, a teacher in the language department at the Turkmen State Institute of Architecture and Construction.

It is claimed the three-worded slogan sums up the belief that sport can act as a positive force in the development of host nation Turkmenistan.

Years or decades may pass before we truly see whether the fifth edition of the now quadrennial event achieves the desired aim, but in order to ensure it does, organisers must grasp the opportunity that the coming two weeks present with both hands.

Although there is some sport scheduled for tomorrow, the first real chance to showcase what Turkmenistan is all about will come on Sunday (September 17) as the newly-built Ashgabat Olympic Stadium plays host to the Opening Ceremony.

Produced by Balich Worldwide Shows, the ceremony has been billed to go down as one of the greatest ever shows of its kind.

And organisers certainly have reason for confidence in the Milan-based company, which has experience in performing the role at previous Olympic Games.

As well as being involved in the ceremonies at Torino 2006, Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016, where they produced the Tokyo 2020 handover segment, their Olympic experience also includes the flag handovers at Salt Lake City 2002 and London 2012.

Turkmenistan athletes attended their official team welcome ceremony at the Athletes' Village earlier this week ©Ashgabat 2017
Turkmenistan athletes attended their official team welcome ceremony at the Athletes' Village earlier this week ©Ashgabat 2017

So with a promising start seemingly in the bag, what can we expect from the competition itself?

A total of 65 delegations from countries across Asia and Oceania will be represented, while a five-member refugee team competing under the Olympic banner will be welcomed to the Games for the first time.

More than 6,000 athletes and team officials have been confirmed as participants thus far with 347 medal events set to be contested across 21 sports over 12 days of action at the new 15-venue Ashgabat Olympic Complex.

The stunning Ashgabat International Airport will be the first stop for visitors to Turkmenistan’s capital, which has been widely redeveloped and is now a sparkling showcase city of modern hotels, brilliant white and marble office and ministerial buildings, fountains and monuments.

The airport was built by Turkish construction company Polimeks and was opened to the public on September 17, 2016, exactly a year before the Ashgabat 2017 Opening Ceremony, by Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov.

Its structure has been recognised by the World Record Academy, as the “largest bird-shaped building”, and the airport itself has a capacity to handle 1,600 passengers per hour.

Much of the success of the Games rests on the athletes who will not have to pass through it; those competing for the home country.

The Turkmenistan national team was the first delegation to receive its official Athletes Village welcome ceremony on Wednesday (September 13).

Dayanch Gulgeldiyev, chairman of the AIMAG Executive Committee, told the athletes they have a fantastic opportunity.

Muaythai is one of 21 sports on the Ashgabat 2017 programme ©Ashgabat 2017
Muaythai is one of 21 sports on the Ashgabat 2017 programme ©Ashgabat 2017

"I have never been so proud to be a part of the Turkmen Sports Movement as I am standing in front of my fellow countrymen," he said.

"The fifth Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games realises the dynamic vision of our esteemed President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov by bringing together the people of Asia and Oceania in harmony, friendship and peace to celebrate what is best about mankind.

"As the host nation for this wonderful sporting celebration, the spotlight will be very much on you, our athletes, to show what we are capable of.

"It can be unnerving having the weight of a nation’s expectations on your shoulders when you go into competition.

"But what I say is that you have been presented with the opportunity of a lifetime.

"Now is your time to inspire.

"Now is your time to succeed.

"Now is your time to make Turkmenistan a proud sporting nation.

"Your role will extend well beyond the competition arena.

"Each and every one of you will be an ambassador for Turkmenistan and I urge you to extend the hand of friendship to the thousands of athletes and officials sharing your home over the next two weeks."

Over the next couple of days, all of the 65 delegations taking part will receive the same welcome as the Turkmenistan team - a cultural performance of traditional dance, and the raising of their national flag.

The decision to allow Oceania nations to compete in the AIMAG for the first time has opened the continent’s door to one of world sport’s traditional heavyweight countries, Australia.

Eighteen athletes will travel from Down Under to compete in taekwondo, weightlifting and wrestling with the joint aim of providing big Games experience to their up-and-coming stars, while bidding to make their mark on the event by winning medals. 

The Ashgabat 2017 Torch is on its way to the capital for the Opening Ceremony on Sunday (September 17) ©Ashgabat 2017
The Ashgabat 2017 Torch is on its way to the capital for the Opening Ceremony on Sunday (September 17) ©Ashgabat 2017

Despite all the reasons to be cheerful, it was claimed earlier this week that Turkmenistan will host the AIMAG "amid an appalling record of human rights abuse".

Human Rights Watch and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights said there have been "no visible efforts to urge the Turkmen Government to address a single human rights concern".

It is likely further questions will be raised regarding this during the event, but Gulgeldiyev has urged Turkmenistan’s athletes to help leave a lasting positive impression on their counterparts.

"Many of those travelling long distances to compete here will be visiting Turkmenistan for the first time," he said.

"Make sure they leave as your friends and with memories that will last a lifetime.

"But, most importantly, enjoy your Ashgabat 2017 Village experience.

"History will be made for our great nation and you all have a part to play."

Time will tell whether the fifth edition of the AIMAG realises what it set out to do.

For now, let the Games begin…