BAKU (AP, ArmeniaNow) — Azerbaijan is considered one of Europe’s lesser-known sporting nations. As the first European Games got into full swing on June 13, the first hosts showed the passion they have for their sportspeople, and they were willing to mix political wrangles with sporting rivalries.
President Ilham Aliyev, who also runs the country’s Olympic committee, was at the wrestling match, where the home fans roared as he presented Azerbaijan’s first wrestling gold medal of the games to Rasul Chunayev in the 71-kilogram category.
Wrestling is hugely popular in Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia, who are bitterly divided by conflict over the Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabagh region. On June 12, the discord even led to the Armenian delegation being booed during the athletes’ parade at the opening ceremony.
No surprise, then, who was booed frequently and loudly when Azerbaijan’s Elman Mukhtarov met Armenia’s Roman Amoyan in a 59-kilo bronze-medal bout. Amoyan was even booed while he was receiving treatment for a head cut. Flame jets at the side of the arena added to the heated atmosphere. Mukhtarov won, and celebrated with a somersault.
Some of the locals even booed a Russian wrestler of Armenian heritage, Stepan Maryanyan in his 59-kilo wrestling final against Soslan Daurov of Belarus. “It wasn’t easy,” Maryanyan said. “I tried not to pay attention to that weight in the hall, the pressure. I actually enjoyed myself, even though they had that attitude toward me.”
Despite all the booing and hissing from the hostile crowd in Baku, Maryanyan managed to win the gold medal.