ASHGABAT (Reuters) - Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov wields almost absolute power in his secretive Central Asian state, but even he could not prevent footage being leaked that shows him falling head-first off a speeding horse.
State media on Monday showed Berdymukhamedov, wearing a traditional white “telpek” sheepskin hat and crimson caftan, riding his horse to a victory - and an $11-million prize - that took his strongman personality cult to a new dimension.
But an unofficial video seen by Reuters shows a man resembling Berdymukhamedov falling from the shimmering straw-colored horse just after they cross the finish line. The rider goes head-first into the track and officials rush to treat him.
There is no suggestion that Berdymukhamedov was badly hurt - he has been shown on state television chairing a conference call since then.
But the embarrassing footage has not been shown by the closely controlled state media in Turkmenistan, and the government and presidential administration have made no comment on the images.
Berdymukhamedov has run the post-Soviet republic with an iron hand since 2006 when his flamboyant autocratic predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, died of a heart attack.
Turkmen state television reports have lionized Central Asia’s youngest and most sporting leader by featuring him flying in a supersonic fighter jet, riding a tank, shooting an assault rifle and removing a benign tumor.
But the leaked footage of the horse race, watched by thousands of people and apparently shot by someone in the crowd, undermines this image.
Straight after finishing the race, a rider who appears to be Berdymukhamedov shifts in his saddle and his horse stumbles. The rider is thrown over the horse’s head and lands ahead of the animal, with other horses narrowly avoiding him as he lies motionless on the track.
Officials in black suits rush out onto the track and surround the rider, who is clumsily lifted into an ambulance.
Some unconfirmed reports have suggested security officials tried to prevent anyone with cameras and video cameras leaving the racetrack with footage or pictures of the fall.
Widely referred to as “Arkadag” (The Patron) at home, Berdymukhamedov has a tight grip on the isolated desert country of 5.5 million people that holds the world’s fourth-largest reserves of natural gas.
The 1,000-metre (3,300-foot) race was held on Sunday when Turkmenistan celebrated The Day of the Turkmen Racehorse - a holiday established by Niyazov to honor the local Akhal Teke breed renowned for its speed and grace.
“President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has yet again demonstrated not only his high class as a horse rider, but also his strong will, firmness and courage,” the Neitralny Turkmenistan daily wrote.
It made no mention of the fall.
Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Michael Roddy