The United States praised Armenia on Wednesday for deciding to participate in the upcoming European Games in Baku despite widespread security concerns that have led some Armenian athletes to boycott them.
James Warlick, the U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, met with members of the Armenian delegation, among them 25 athletes, just hours before they flew to the Azerbaijani capital via Tbilisi.
“We welcome the Armenian government’s and your brave decision to participate in the European Games in Baku. We wish all Armenian athletes good luck in the competitions,” the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan quoted Warlick as telling them.
“The U.S. Embassy joins the Ambassador [Warlick] in wishing the Armenian athletes well!” it added in a statement.
The first-ever European Games will take place from June 12-28. They will bring together some 6,000 athletes from across wider Europe.
The Armenian National Olympic Committee (ANOC) officially decided to send a team to the multi-sport event 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, were not among the Armenian wrestlers who headed 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 games. 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.
Davit Torosian, the head coach of the national boxing team, also defied the ANOC decision in March, dismissing the security guarantees given by the Azerbaijani authorities and the European Olympic Committee (EOC). Torosian claimed that hostile crowds and pressure from Azerbaijani officials will preclude fair refereeing at the competitions involving Armenians.
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 Aliyev will use the games to promote his repressive regime known for its tough anti-Armenian rhetoric.
The ANOC’s secretary general, Hrachya Rostomian, again defended Armenian participation in the games late last month. He said that a boycott would only damage Armenia.