The Armenian National Olympic Committee (ANOC) named on Tuesday 25 athletes who will represent Armenia at the upcoming European Games in Baku despite widespread security concerns that have led some of their teammates to boycott the multi-sport event.
The ANOC’s secretary general, Hrachya Rostomian, said they will compete in six sports, including boxing, shooting and various types of wrestling. “All of these athletes are ready to represent Armenia in Baku with honor just as they do in other countries,” he told a news conference. “We are aiming for a successful participation.”
The first-ever European Games slated for June 12-28 are expected to bring together some 6,000 athletes from around the continent.
The ANOC officially decided to take part in the Olympic-style games in March. The move, endorsed and possibly dictated by the Armenian government, came after months of heated debates that effectively split the country’s sporting community.
The decision was openly challenged by some of Armenia’s leading athletes and coaches, including practically the entire national Greco-Roman wrestling team. Its most successful members, reigning world champion Artur Aleksanian and Olympic silver medalist Arsen Julfalakian, will not be among the Armenian wrestlers heading to Baku.
Julfalakian, who already competed in a world wrestling championship in Baku in 2007, has been particularly vocal in opposing Armenian participation in the Baku. He has said that very tight security involving around-the-clock armed protection, coupled with extreme hostility from Azerbaijani spectators, will prevent Armenian athletes from properly concentrating on their respective competitions.
“We felt like prisoners all the time,” Julfalakian said recently, citing his own experience in the Azerbaijani capital. “Security guards would start cheering for our opponents immediately after escorting us to the wrestling mat.”
“On top of that, there were 20,000-25,000 people in the arena. They would have ripped us apart if they had been allowed to,” he claimed.
Davit Torosian, the head coach of the national boxing team, was even more dismissive about the security guarantees given to the ANOC by the Azerbaijani authorities and the European Olympic Committee (EOC). “At stake will be the lives of our athletes, not their sporting careers,” he claimed, pointing to intense anti-Armenian sentiment in Azerbaijan that has been fanned by the authorities in Baku throughout the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Speaking to News.am in March, Torosian also said that hostile crowds and pressure from Azerbaijani officials will preclude fair refereeing at the competitions involving Armenians. Accordingly, he refused to join several Armenian boxers who agreed to compete in Baku.
Many in Armenia share these concerns. Some, among them pro-establishment public figures, say that the Baku games should be boycotted for political reasons as well. They argue that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev will use the games to promote his repressive regime known for its tough anti-Armenian rhetoric.
The ANOC’s Rostomian acknowledged that the 25 Armenian athletes and their coaches will not be going to Baku “with great pleasure” and will find themselves in a “difficult psychological atmosphere” there. But he insisted that none of them was pressurized into participating in the games.
Rostomian went on to defend the ANOC’s decision, saying that a boycott would have only damaged Armenia. “I don’t know of a single Armenian who has dreamed about going to Baku all his life,” he said. “But this is a European Olympic Committee tournament. It’s not a property of Azerbaijan.”
Rostomian also revealed that the ANOC’s chairman, Gagik Tsarukian, has “categorically” refused to allow the Azerbaijani organizers of the games to cover the Armenian delegation’s travel and accommodation expenses.
The organizers have expressed readiness to foot the bill for the athletes from all 50 or so competing countries.