Five young athletes from Azerbaijan arrived in Yerevan late on Tuesday to compete in a European judo championship for juniors and mark their country’s first-ever participation in a sporting event held in Armenia since the Soviet collapse.
The tournament, which starts on Friday, will bring together judo teams from about 40 countries, including Turkey. Azerbaijan’s participation in it was made possible by a special agreement signed by the Armenian and Azerbaijani ministers of sport in Yerevan last week.
The agreement commits the host country to ensuring the Azerbaijani team’s security, creating adequate conditions for it, and playing Azerbaijan’s national anthem if one of its wrestlers becomes a European champion.
Tight security measures were visible on Wednesday at a Yerevan hotel where the 15-strong Azerbaijani delegation, which also includes coaches, doctors, judo officials and journalists, will stay during the competition. “We can’t go anywhere without them,” Gunduz Abbaszade, a sports reporter for Azerbaijan’s ANS television, told RFE/RL, pointing to scores of security officers deployed in the hotel lobby.
“We are not scared because they are with us,” he said. “Everything is fine … The main thing is that they don’t hinder us.”
“This day will probably do gown in history,” grinned Azer Garayev, an ANS cameraman.
In Abbaszade’s words, the Azerbaijani athletes are determined to win with gold medals in Yerevan. Aleksan Avetisian, chairman of the Armenian Judo Federation, admitted that they have good chances of doing well in the tournament.
“I must say that Azerbaijan has a fairly strong team,” Avetisian told RFE/RL. “They won a gold medal in last years’ Olympic Games, something which many countries can only dream about.”
The unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has been an extremely serious hindrance to Armenian and Azerbaijani athletes’ participation in sporting events held in each other’s country. Citing the conflict, the Azerbaijani government usually opposes the presence of various Armenian delegations on its soil.
In 2007, the authorities in Baku refused to guarantee the security of Armenia’s national soccer team, which was due to play Azerbaijan as part of a qualifying campaign for the 2008 European football championship. The Armenian side rejected Azerbaijani demands that the games between the two teams be played in a neutral venue, leading European football’s governing body, UEFA, to cancel the fixtures.
Later that year, the Azerbaijani government reluctantly agreed to allow Armenian wrestlers to compete in a world championship in Baku, under apparent pressure from the International Olympic Committee and FILA, the sport’s world governing body.