By Ruzanna Stepanian
Senior sports officials and coaches on Thursday blamed Armenia’s extremely poor performance at the Olympic Games in Athens on a lack of state funding and injuries suffered by their top athletes.
None of the 18 Armenian athletes that participated in the games won any medals, the country’s worst Olympic showing since independence. Making their collective defeat an even more bitter pill for many Armenians to swallow was the fact that neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan won two and one Olympic titles respectively. In addition several Armenian-born athletes now representing other countries won silver and bronze medals.
The fiasco sparked an outcry from the media and leading politicians, including those representing the ruling coalition. They have unanimously pointed the finger at Ishkhan Zakarian, the controversial head of the State Committee on Sport and Physical Culture and the National Olympic committee. He has been widely accused of incompetence and mismanagement.
But in a newspaper interview published on Thursday, Zakarian rejected the accusations, saying that he will not resign voluntarily. “I could not have stepped on the arena in place of a boxer, wrestler of weight-lifter,” he said.
Among those demanding the official’s head is the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, one of the three ruling parties. And the powerful Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian hinted shortly before the end of the Olympics that Zakarian will have to go if he returns from Athens without medals.
Zakarian chose not to appear at a news conference which was held in his agency’s office by his deputy Mikael Ispirian and several Olympic team coaches. A spokesman said Zakarian felt that his presence would not let them “speak frankly.”
Ispirian said only seven Armenian athletes had realistic chances of doing well in Athens and most of them suffered injuries in the middle of the competitions. Asked about the quarterfinal elimination of Aleksan Nalbandian, Armenia’s sole boxer at the Olympics, he said, “Maybe he lost narrowly. But in essence, it was a victorious bout.”
“If we felt that resignation would change things positively we would all be ready to quit,” Ispirian said. “And if you think that the specialists sitting here are not as professional as you journalists are, then you are wrong.”
The coaches, for their part, complained that government funding allocated to sports is highly insufficient for proper training of their disciples. The Sport Committee’s budget for this year is only 350 million drams ($680,000).
“To win medals you need money, money and money,” said Vahan Bichakhchian, the head coach of the national weight-lifting team. “What do you think I can achieve with a monthly salary of $50?”
(AP-Photolur photo: Zakarian, left, marching with the Armenian delegation at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.)