Turkmenistan President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov apparently wasn’t seriously injured Sunday when his horse stumbled and he pitched into the dirt track at the hippodrome on the outskirts of the capital, Ashgabat. But the fall was a wound to the pride of the 55-year-old leader, whose all-powerful personality cult portrays him as effortlessly competent.
Thousands were in the stands for the race that celebrated Turkmenistan’s renowned desert racehorse breed, the Akhal-Teke. But state media’s video of the race cut off just before the fall and the extensive written reports on the event didn’t mention the plunge.
All domestic broadcasting in Turkmenistan is state-run; newspapers are either state-run or under heavy government supervision. Media criticism of the president is non-existent and elaborate praise of him is ubiquitous in this nation of 5 million, wedged between the Caspian Sea and Iran, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
Turkmenistan’s security agencies reportedly went into high gear to try to block video or images of the president’s fall from slipping out to the rest of the world. The opposition-in-exile group Gundogar cited witnesses as saying police were carefully checking the mobile phones and cameras of departing passengers at Ashgabat’s airport.
Video obtained by The Associated Press shows a rider falling when his horse stumbles after crossing the finish line in first place. State media reported Berdymukhamedov won the race.
The horse also fell, but quickly got up. Berdymukhamedov, however, lay motionless. Within seconds, several dozen men rushed onto the track, and an ambulance soon arrived.
The president appeared later to collect the $11 million purse, which he says will go toward improving the country’s horse breeding.