Money buys everything but swimming medals for home nation

Azerbaijan’s huge investment not reaping all the rewards they may have wished for

Azerbaijan medal hopeful Collazo Sotomayor was born in Cuba. Photograph: Getty.

Azerbaijan medal hopeful Collazo Sotomayor was born in Cuba. Photograph: Getty.

 

After spending €85 million on the opening ceremony, €540 million on a new stadium to stage it, plus that reported €9 billion on running the entire show, the generous people of Azerbaijan were hardly going to skimp on the medal ceremonies. Not after investing so heavily to ensure they also won plenty of medals of their own.

It helps to have a sporting mad president. Ilham Aliyev may not rank among the most powerful men in the world, but he definitely ranks among the richest most powerful men in the world. The way Aliyev arrived down at Baku’s Crystal Hall to present the first of Azerbaijan’s gold medals in boxing provided some dazzling proof of that.

Not for the first time during these European Games, it had to be seen to be believed: the endless presidential cavalcade of executive Mercedes Benz; the police escort of BMW 3-Series that ran either side of it; then dozens of SUVs and other armoured vehicles to make sure no one got in the way. Not that they could have anyway – all the roads around Crystal Hall sealed off well in advance.

Once ushered into Crystal Hall, Aliyev took his seat in the small VIP section, not far below the press tribune, right next to the president of the European Olympic Committee, our own Pat Hickey. Two rows in front of them sat John Delaney, second president of the Olympic Council of Ireland (He’d left his FAI hat at home, although not his partner Emma English.).

Aliyev, the man in charge here since 2003, is also president of their National Olympic Committee, and the man Hickey convinced could help put his country on the sporting map by staging these Games. They smiled and chatted for a few minutes, until Teymur Mammadov, Azerbaijan’s gold medal favourite in the men’s light heavyweight, took the ring his final bout with Valentino Manfredonia from Italy.

After that, no one inside Crystal Hall could hear themselves think – although hopefully not the judges too. Either way, Mammadov was awarded the unanimous decision, over the slightly bemused looking Italian, and not long after that, Aliyev climbed into the ring to award Mammadov his gold medal.

Properly presidential

Needless to say this is surpassing expectations, or least is nothing like what Azerbaijan would be capable of at the Olympic Games. Mammadov was born in Baku, and clearly one their own, although that’s not necessary the rule when it comes to representing Azerbaijain at these European Games.

In the men’s light welterweight final, another Azerbaijani will box for the gold medal, and his name is Collazo Sotomayor. If that name rings a sporting bell it’s because Sotomayor was actually born and raised in Cuba, and his uncle is Cuba’s long-standing world high jump record holder Javier Sotomayor (That record of 2.45 metres, set back in 1993.).

“Javier is my hero, my superman,” Sotomayor has been telling the Baku press. “He was always telling me, ‘You can do it. You can be a champion too’. He was my inspiration, the reason I started boxing. Of course, I would like to become an Olympic champion like him. I am aiming to compete in Rio next year, at the Olympic Games and to get first place”.

There is no reference as to why exactly Sotomayor ended up in Azerbaijan. He arrived here just under two years ago, and while Cuban boxing has had countless defections over years, Sotomayor certainly seemed to time his arrival just right.

“Here, I have a lot more opportunities than I had in Cuba,” he also says. “I am the number one boxer for this country and it was more difficult in Cuba. I like representing Azerbaijan and I like living here.”

That may well be the case, and while he certainly enjoys his boxing (complete with his Ali shuffle), Sotomayor is certainly not the only one to switch allegiance in advance of these Games: Azerbaijan’s top athlete during the division four league championship, for example, was distance runner Hayle Ibrahimov, born and raised in Addis Ababa,

Make a splash

Anyway, it didn’t amount to much. Anton Jeltyakov, formerly of the Ukraine, and who actually admits to preferring basketball, has so far been the best of them, the only Azerbaijani to get beyond the first round of any swimming event, when he reached the semi-finals of the 200m breaststroke.

Jeltyakov still fancies his chances of becoming the first Azerbaijani swimmer to reach a final when he goes in his best event, the 100m breaststroke, on Saturday.

“I was invited to compete in Azerbaijan, and I love this place,” he’s been telling the Baku press. “There’s no stress, everyone’s very hospitable and kind, and I’m so proud to be competing for the country.”

Still, even on that €9 billion and running, it seems they haven’t yet been able to buy themselves a medal in swimming.

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