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Sports diplomacy cooperative agreement empowers people with disabilities in Turkmenistan

Two men in wheelchairs high fiving
Copyrights: US Department of State

Sports diplomacy cooperative agreement empowers people with disabilities in Turkmenistan

The fourth in a six part series from the U.S. Department of State.

By International Sports Programming Initiative Cooperative Partner Virginia Commonwealth University – Carrie LeCrom, Ph.D.

“Do you want me to put on my leg?”

The question came from Robin Yoder, a cancer survivor who lost her right leg while battling the disease ten years ago. Now, a competitive Para-Triathlete and Para-Rower, Yoder had traveled thousands of miles to Turkmenistan with 19 other adaptive sport advocates to inspire, educate, and learn from the country’s sports community about opportunities for people with disabilities.

Sensing the moment, Yoder secured her leg, a state-of-the-art prosthetic made for competitive athletics. She took a deep breath. She started running.

The Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Center for Sport Leadership (CSL) has collaborated with the U.S. Department of State’s Sports Diplomacy Division for more than 15 years. Through innovative programming, strategic partnerships and thoughtful dialogue, the CSL has orchestrated impactful sport-for-develop initiatives in China, Ethiopia, India, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

VCU has been a partner on the International Sports Programming Initiative (ISPI), an annual open grant competition that allows U.S. non-profit organizations to submit proposals for exchanges designed to reach youth, coaches, sports administrators who manage sports programs. ISPI programs use the power of sport to help underserved youth around the world develop important leadership skills, achieve academic success, promote tolerance and respect for diversity, and positively contribute to their home communities.

Executive Director Carrie LeCrom has led these cultural exchanges, called ENVEST (Empowering New Voices through Education and Sport Training) to create social change through sport. “Our sports diplomacy programs, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of State, have demonstrated how universal the language of sport truly is. We have interacted with individuals from countries we never could have imagined, expanded our view of the world as a result, and that continues to be one of our greatest gifts.”

Ranked among the top ten programs in the world by Sports Business, the CSL has leveraged the success of these exchanges to enhance the graduate program’s curriculum and promote an essential core value: global-mindedness. In CSL classes, the cultural exchange missions serve as real-world examples and vivid illustrations of the power of sport and its ability to create social change.

The trip to Turkmenistan culminated the CSL’s most ambitious initiative to date, one that spanned more than three years and included seven South Central Asian countries. The two-way exchange with Turkmenistan was the first to focus exclusively on adaptive sports and highlight the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 2020. In October 2018, athletes with disabilities and their coaches from Turkmenistan visited the United States to learn best practices from adaptive sport experts and develop strategies to implement more programs in their country. One year later, in March 2019, the U.S. delegation journeyed to Turkmenistan to foster additional growth for people with disabilities in Turkmenistan.

“From the moment we started planning this trip, we knew it would be unlike any of our other trips. There were unique challenges, for sure, but more importantly, there was also tremendous opportunity to make an impact,” said LeCrom.

The U.S. delegation featured five adaptive sport athletes, many of them connected to Sportable, a leading adaptive sport organization based in Richmond, Virginia. 

The itinerary was crafted to maximize engagement between our athletes and the people they met. While the majority of programming took place in the capital of Ashgabat, small groups of delegates visited other cities in Turkmenistan in an effort to increase the reach and influence of this initiative. The U.S. Embassy provided vital logistical and diplomatic support to maximize the success of these regional visits, most of which were hundreds of miles from the capital.

During the regional visits, Turkmenistan delegates who had traveled to the U.S. served as hosts, introducing the Americans to their cities, adaptive sport facilities, schools for the disabled, and their fellow athletes and coaches. The time together to dialogue about the similar opportunities and challenges that athletes with disabilities face led to some of the deepest connections from the trip. Athletes were proud to showcase their sports and many accomplishments, often in sports that are not as popular in the U.S.

The delegation reconvened in Ashgabat to culminate the visit with a full-day seminar, “Unlocking Potential through Adaptive Sports”. In the morning, a joint summit generated productive dialogue and a healthy exchange of ideas between American and Turkmenistan stakeholders. The afternoon featured a showcase of adaptive sport athletes from the U.S. and Turkmenistan in the Team Sports Hall of the Olympic Complex.

This powerful platform, attended by officials from Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Sport and U.S. Ambassador Matthew Klimow, allowed athletes to experiment with sports and equipment, highlight their abilities, and illustrate their potential.

Para-athletes from the U.S. and Turkmenistan participated together in five sports: wheelchair basketball, goal ball, sitting volleyball, table tennis and chess/checkers.

During the exhibition, a wave of cheers erupted through the crowd, nearly 1,000 students from local sports schools who came to witness the demonstration. The applause was for Robin Yoder who was running past the grandstand using her prosthetic leg. The ovation signaled the ultimate validation of the trip, the impact it left and the change still to come.


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International Sports Programming Initiative Cooperative Partner Virginia Commonwealth University – Carrie LeCrom, Ph.D.


Wednesday, June 24, 2020 - 11:14