By Misak Krkyasharian
Armenia’s national wrestling team will leave for Azerbaijan’s capital Baku later this week to take part in a world championship to be held there, the head of the Armenian Wrestling Federation said on Monday.
The team’s participation in the competition will mark an extremely rare visit to Azerbaijan by Armenian athletes. The Azerbaijani government usually opposes the presence of various Armenian delegations on its soil, citing the unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Earlier this year, the authorities in Baku refused to guarantee the security of Armenia’s national soccer team, which was due to play Azerbaijan as part of the ongoing qualifying campaign for the 2008 European football championship. The two teams had been drawn into the same Group A of the campaign. The Armenian side rejected Azerbaijani demands that the games between them be played in a neutral venue, leading European football’s governing body, UEFA, to cancel the fixtures.
The Azerbaijani authorities reluctantly agreed last May to allow Armenian wrestlers to compete in the world championship, scheduled for September 17-23, under apparent pressure from the International Olympic Committee and FILA, the sport’s world governing body.
Levon Vartanian, secretary general of the Armenian Wrestling Federation, told RFE/RL that it received late last week a letter from Rafael Martinez, the FILA president, officially inviting the Armenian team to the championship. He said the 15 members of the team, one of them a woman, as well as their coaches and federation officials will travel to Baku via Tbilisi this weekend. The Azerbaijani side has promised to issue them with entry visas at Baku airport, he said.
In Vartanian’s words, the wrestlers are in “combative spirits” despite having security concerns and expecting a hostile reception from spectators. “They are tasked with successfully participating in the world championship,” he said. “That would earn them qualification for the next Olympic games.”