By Anna SaghabalianOne of Armenia’s richest men was unanimously elected on Monday as chairman of the National Olympic Committee, promising to go so far as to sign up foreign athletes for bringing his country glory at the next Olympic games.
Gagik Tsarukian, the government-connected owner of the Multi Group conglomerate, took over the body he has sponsored for years after the resounding failure of Armenian athletes to win any medals at the last games held in Athens in August. The fiasco prompted angry calls for the resignation of his predecessor Ishkhan Zakarian.
Zakarian personally recommended Tsarukian to committee members but again made clear that he will not resign as head of a separate government agency in charge of sport affairs.
“If I notice in 2007 that we don’t have athletes that win first or second places in European and world championships I will have to think about buying Uzbek, Russian or Georgian athletes in order to raise the Armenian flag,” at the next Olympic games in Beijing in 2008, Tsarukian said in his acceptance speech.
The burly tycoon, who reportedly made his name as an arm-wrestler before building a business empire, has already sponsored athletes competing in various international tournaments. He pledged on Monday to invest more heavily in the country’s dilapidated Soviet-era sporting infrastructure and to promote various sports among young Armenians.
“I will do whatever is needed,” he told RFE/RL. “I’m taking on this difficult task and must emerge with victory.”
“Gagik Tsarukian has always stood by Armenian sport and is not a novice in the field,” Zakarian said for his part.
The official, who reportedly enjoys President Robert Kocharian’s personal support, again refused to accept the blame for one of Armenia’s worst-ever Olympic showings. “We must analyze our Olympic failure and find its root causes,” he said. “Unfortunately, instead of doing that, everyone today makes emotional statements.”
Some national team coaches and other sport officials attending the Olympic Committee conference tried to engage in such soul-searching, complaining about poor training facilities and a lack of government funding.
(Photolur photo: Gagik Tsarukian.)