I have said it before: what was Jack Nicklaus thinking?
History is littered with autocratic regimes seeking legitimacy through celebrity endorsements, often exploiting the ignorance of those who have pitched up in good faith but only later find a wave of condemnation highlighting at best a hitherto unawareness of the firestorm such appearances create; at worst accusations of unashamedly taking the coin as a last attempt to reignite often flagging careers.
One obvious example is Dennis Rodman’s bizarre flirtation with North Korea, and in particular its leader, Kim Jong-un. Ostensibly travelling to the hermit state to share its leader’s love of basketball, Rodman’s self-styled attempts at being Donald Trump’s de facto envoy to Pyongyang were inevitably given short shrift by Washington. Never far from controversy, Rodman appears more a figure concerned with cocking a snook at mainstream thought and authority than being concerned with America’s volatile relationship with the Mount Paektu bloodline.
A lack of a nuclear capability ensures Turkmenistan continues to operate below the radar of western consciousness although its absolute leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow, has broken new ground by attempting, and seemingly succeeding, in cosying up to western celebrities. Whilst the career of British singer John Newman could politely be said to have stagnated, it is unfortunate that he was sufficiently ill-advised to perform at the closing ceremony of the recent Ashgabat-hosted Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. Where though Newman differs from Jennifer Lopez and Jack Nicklaus, is the seemingly inexhaustible desire for money by two stars in their respective fields who should know better, and probably do, but present an attitude to money that enough is actually just a little more.
Lopez was forced to apologise in 2013 for performing at Berdymukhamedow’s birthday party, an event sponsored by China’s National Petroleum Corporation. For those with such a large profile and commensurate entourage, pleading ignorance of a nation’s human rights record carries little weight and leaves celebrities open to accusations of venality and greed. As so often the case, it is simply all about the money, but despite the subsequent denials and apologies, the likes of Lopez end up doing the dictator’s work for them. It is therefore difficult to uphold arguments accusing Turkmenistan of eye-watering excess with righteous indignation when one of the west’s very own proves to be so receptive to financially-centred blandishments.
Eclipsing such examples of flagging careers and unconvincing protestations of innocence are the repeated visits to Turkmenistan by golfing superstar, Jack Nicklaus. The greatest golfer who ever lived has delivered, through his Nicklaus Design vehicle, countless courses worldwide – proving that traditional frontiers offer few barriers to preaching the game’s gospel. However, I will again state that someone of Nicklaus’ stature will have a back-office of advisers with the ability to deliver inconvenient truths about regions of the world where it is better for him NOT to have his name associated. Whether or not this is the reality, it obviously hasn’t happened.
Rumoured to have made half a dozen trips to one of the former Soviet Union’s Central Asian republics, Nicklaus was ‘won over’ by his meetings with Berdymukhamedow, who perhaps accepted boot polish for his hair as part of the deal. Another example of an individual hardly needing the money, Nicklaus will no doubt state that taking golf to countries not normally associated with the game is a force for good – an argument worthy of some credence. The reality inside Turkmenistan, however, whether The Golden Bear is aware of it or not, is of countless billions being siphoned off for the president’s pet vanity projects all in the name of advancing a cult of personality – a type the world has never before seen – at the expense of creating an equitable society which at times struggles to source basic foodstuffs.
Nicklaus has previously admitted his bewilderment of being approached by a country hardly synonymous with the game, although every nation has to start somewhere. The realities are though that Turkmenistan’s locals will struggle to get anywhere near the course situated outside Ashgabat, let alone set foot upon its tailored fairways. Whilst former dentist Berdymukhamedow propounds a healthy lifestyle for his subjects and likes to be seen following such a regime, it is to be wondered who outside his inner circle will grace this and other Nicklaus-designed courses earmarked for the country’s outer provinces.
Until celebrities disassociate themselves from brutal, repressive regimes they will continue to be used as tools of propaganda and upheld as exemplars of western hypocrisy. How otherwise can rogue states be brought to book when citizens from nations vehemently opposed to their methods turn a blind eye to the realities of everyday life in the likes of Turkmenistan? Money has though always talked, to a point where even those who should know better grant it an audience.
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