In a world connected by data, rolling news, and instant messaging there can be little excuse for ignorance. Drilling down into almost any conceivable issue within modern society and those redolent of another age is as easy today as can be imagined, but the devils of fake news, hearsay, and online maliciousness remain very much part of the detail from which the truth must be continually sifted when it threatens to get in the way of a good story.

What then can be made of several instances of celebrities cosying up to dictators? Are we to assume that they and their backroom staff failed to do the necessary research from a wealth of damning evidence in the public domain? Or are we to assume that chasing another payday outweighs the potential for reputational harm?

It is difficult to imagine that Jennifer Lopez, Jack Nicklaus, and UK singer John Newman were all so badly advised to assume that performing in Turkmenistan and working with the Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow regime would go unnoticed, as much as it incomprehensible that Nicklaus and Lopez needed their respective gigs that badly. The Golden Bear perhaps in his naivety thought bringing golf to the biggest sand trap in Central Asia would help spread his sport’s message and reach within otherwise uncharted territory, but by designing a course on which he partnered President Berdymukhamedow during its inaugural round, Nicklaus gave the impression that he’d give serious consideration to putting(pun intended) his name to a course in downtown Pyongyang or for that matter, on the far side of Neptune. We’ll never know for sure what motivated the 18-time major winner to venture to North Korea-lite, but I would have thought that his management team and the great man himself might have researched the chilling, despotic reality hidden behind the president’s benevolent ‘for the cameras’ grin.

Lopez has since insisted that she would not have appeared in Turkmenistan had its history of human rights abuses been made clear to her, but the event sponsored by China National Petroleum Corporation(CNPC) included a gushing paean aimed squarely at Berdymukhamedow, who just so happened that day to be celebrating his birthday. It was apparently only at the 11th hour that Lopez was asked to mark the auspicious occasion with a personal tribute to the president but the fact remains she agreed to perform in Turkmenistan, regardless of whether or not there was any prior knowledge of who would be in the audience.

We have already established that ignorance is no defence, although it would seem that Lopez and her team never sought to question how so much money could be offered for her services by businessmen, oligarch, and a malevolent dictator, all from former republics of the Soviet Union, and presumably in modern day countries of whose existence they were otherwise ignorant(that word again). As a seemingly shameless gun for hire, when does more money ever become enough, especially when it is earned through feigned interest in the benefactor bankrolling the one-night stand, a term used for its original definition.

I am not aware if Lopez’s fee in excess of $1 million to perform in Turkmenistan was ever paid back, or even gifted to organizations tasked with highlighting human rights abuses throughout Central Asia, and across the globe. It is not just the money, even the staggering amounts attached to such ‘smile like you mean it’ and ‘think of the money’ appearances, but the utter indifference to the wider world outside of a showbizness bubble resided in by so many but admittedly not all celebrities. If Lopez’s management had been approached for the singer to do a gig in Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, or wherever, it is not unrealistic to expect a reply along the lines of ‘where is that’? Even a cursory Internet search would help geographically orientate the otherwise ignorant but also furnish the curious with the many extremely serious consequences of Berdymukhamedow’s rule, and that of his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov. It beggars belief that the aforementioned scenario did not take place, although the promise of another fat pay cheque perhaps soothed any pangs of conscience arising from such an ethical dilemma.

Fast forward to modern times, when the Internet is indisputably our main source of information, but also represents the biggest threat to moral probity and restraint that humanity has ever faced. It is though from where that the Union Cycliste Internationale(UCI) will have garnered their information on Turkmenistan’s bicycle fanatic president when deciding to confer upon him their highest award, seemingly for his unwavering commitment to cycling.

It can be argued that the UCI through their focus on cycling adopt the same neutral attitude to areas of life outside of their speciality as Turkmenistan does in maintaining a hermit-like, isolationist stance commensurate with its own internationally recognized neutrality. It has though been pointed out that had Kim Jong-un had a similar penchant for two wheels as his central Asian facsimile, albeit one without a Nuclear capability that would somewhat undermine Turkmenistan’s neutrality, would the UCI have rushed to present North Korea’s absolute ruler with such an honour?

Berdymukhamedow loves his cycling, although it is moot as to how often he saddles up away from the cameras. It is though the passions of the president’s life which occupy much of his time, to a point of obsession that has produced tomes on subjects as diverse as tea, horses, and carpets. The nuts and bolts of everyday rule and the fate of many of his citizens within a country inexorably heading towards financial ruin are of little consequence, and unequivocally do not get in the way of pursuing what pleases him, and what therefore by dint of a dictator’s Narcissistic mindset be what is best for Turkmenistan. Unveiling a gaudy monument to cycling on World Bicycle Day felt horribly contrived, even more so than has become the norm in Berdymukhamedow’s statuary-obsessed dimension, coinciding as it did with the UCI award and bizarre lickspittle-type behaviour, via videolink, from its president David Lappartient.

The cynical side of me hewered at the coalface of so many propaganda clips and choreographed photo opportunities emerging from Berdymukhamedow’s Potemkin-esque land ponders whether the president, by way of presenting a wholesome image of cycling, tea drinking, and gym usage, is attempting to hoodwink the wider world into believing him to be a harmless eccentric with his nation at heart, but someone sitting on vast hydrocarbon wealth who is not to be irritated or challenged. An obsession with white marbled buildings does suggest a liking for tackiness at the high end of the scale, but an insistence of only white cars to be driven on the nation’s deserted streets would appear to stem from aesthetic ideals which perhaps run counter to his black hearted rule.

Or, perhaps more prosaically the president has simply translated from his former career as a dentist the truism that white teeth present better health and aesthetics and masks the rot hidden beneath, ironically something which is evident once the surface is scratched on many of the vanity, boondoggle projects that have sprung up during a 13-year reign.

Perhaps the UCI should have waited for a slower news year, both in context of the novel coronavirus pandemic and when its calendar of events would take place in circumstances considered to be normal, to announce its homage to a merciless regime that hides its crimes and the injustices meted out to its citizens behind vainglorious boasting, delusions, and alleged wholesome living.

If any good comes from what at best can be described as the UCI’s clumsiness the situation on the ground in Turkmenistan will at least gain greater prominence, in theory discouraging celebrity endorsement and further nonsensical plaudits being lavished on those that least deserve them. In a dash for cash attendant with the dubious cachet of being associated with the world’s pariahs that makes even the already lavishly remunerated go weak at the knees, there is though little chance of the hypocrisy associated with the West’s conspicuous consumption but hollow moral outrage becoming a thing of the past any time soon.

Source material and further information:

Road.cc: https://road.cc/content/news/uci-defends-decision-honour-turkmenistan-dictator-274491

Cycling Tips: https://cyclingtips.com/2020/06/the-uci-just-gave-its-highest-award-to-a-dictator/

The Guardian(UK): https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/30/jennifer-lopez-performance-turkmenistan

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: www.rferl.org/a/turkmenistan-further-tightens-food-rationing-amid-price-hikes-shortages/30667731.html

Cycling News: www.cyclingnews.com/features/makarov-the-puppet-master-as-uci-hands-mystery-award-to-turkmenistan/