The heat-scorched Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan has opened a winter sports complex in a lavish ceremony overseen by the country's authoritarian president as it seeks to compete in the Winter Olympics for the first time.
About 10,000 people waving white and green balloons packed the arena to capacity on Wednesday evening to watch an opening show of performers singing songs in praise of the president and a display by international figure skaters and circus artists.
Energy-rich Turkmenistan, which gained independence amid the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, has never taken part in the Winter Olympics – and has never won a medal in the summer Games – but it plans to send a team to participate in the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
The weather in this largely desert nation varies between warm and blistering highs of 50 degrees Celsius in summer. Snow is a rare sight.
The winter complex cost some €135 million and was built by Turkish construction firm Polimeks. It has facilities for ice hockey and figure skating, as well as training facilities and a 350-bed boarding school.
The country has relied on gas export revenues to build huge marble-clad government buildings, presidential complexes and race tracks.
The opening ceremony was marked by adulation for President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, which is common for public events in Turkmenistan. The President, who has ruled the country since 2006, strode in over a green carpet decorated with motifs from the Turkmen national flag and surrounded on both sides by banner-waving youths. After watching an acrobatic routine to the strain of Turkmen songs hailing the virtues of sport and healthy living, he cut the ribbon.