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ASHGABAT (Reuters) - Reclusive Turkmenistan has new and ambitious hopes to join the club of the world's ice hockey greats some day as the sport becomes the latest craze of the nation's absolute leader.
President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, whose interests vary from horse riding to riding sleek racing cars, has ordered the state ministries to establish their own ice hockey teams, the official daily Neitralny Turkmenistan said on Wednesday.
His word is final in the arid, gas-rich former Soviet republic of 5.5 million people where the patriarchal president, 54, who was trained as a dentist, enjoys virtually unlimited powers and a rising personality cult.
"Interior Minister I. Mulikov, who was present at the meeting, reported straight to the head of state about the creation of the ministry's own hockey team," the newspaper said.
"The leader of the nation stressed that it was necessary to provide efficient material stimuli to award those sportsmen who would win first places at Olympic games and other international competitions," Neitralny Turkmenistan said.
Berdymukhamedov's marble-clad showpiece capital Ashgabat, where summer temperatures often hover at 45 Celsius (113 Fahrenheit), has two spacious ice palaces for winter sports.
On April 4-7, the first four Turkmen teams, consisting of youths, took part in the president's first ice hockey cup tournament during what Berdymukhamedov proclaimed as the Week of Health and Happiness.
The cup winner, Burgut (Golden Eagle), sponsored by the state sports and tourism committee, was awarded a $20,000 prize by Berdymukhamedov and will spend two weeks training with the youth team of Russia's Ak Bars Kazan of the Kontinental Hockey League, grouping 24 adult clubs from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Latvia.
As part of the Soviet Union until 1991, Turkmenistan was one of the poorest among its 15 republics.
But after independence, late autocratic leader Saparmurat Niyazov and his successor Berdymukhamedov have lavished part of the Central Asian nation's gas-generated revenues on glitzy special projects.
They have included a posh resort, Avaza, on the Caspian Sea and a giant artificial lake at the heart of the Karakum desert.
Berdymukhamedov is keen to attract foreign investment and markets for the Central Asian state's future gas ambitions. He has taken some steps to bring Turkmenistan out of the isolation that accompanied the maverick rule of Niyazov, who banned opera and renamed the months of the year.
Reporting by Marat Gurt; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Mark Heinrich