Our Society 11 september — 19:11

President of Paralympic Committee: In Azerbaijan, parents are embarrassed about their children with disabilities

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INTERVIEWED BY EYNULLA FATULLAYEV, ELMIR ALIYEV

Except for momentary episodic meetings, I have not met with Ilgar Rahimov since the late 1990s. In my understanding, Ilgar Rahimov is a classic bureaucrat and a true technocrat, of whom the bureaucratic apparatus of any state should consist. For almost three decades, from the age of 32, he served as deputy and then first deputy minister of labour and social protection. Although from the age of 28, he worked in the state apparatus itself: the Ministry of Finance, and then undertakings in the legendary department of Vahid Ahundov in the Presidential Administration. Ilgar Rahimov is an official to the marrow of his bones, and at the same time he has always been distinguished by unseen modesty, non-ambition, rationality, progressiveness and erudition. To be honest, it was a great pity when Ilgar Rahimov in his prime at 53 left the state apparatus. But one thing was reassuring: from the mid-1990s he stood at the origins of the Paralympic Movement in Azerbaijan, when the majority were very sceptical about the prospects for the success of 'wheelchair sports' in a country with systemic social problems. But Ilgar Rahimov, whom we have always called behind his back the 'insensitive German machine,' walked step by step towards his goal...

The overwhelming success of the Azerbaijani Paralympians in Tokyo brought us for the first time to the headquarters of the committee. How else? Today they are the heroes of the country! We met our sports heroes at the airport, and then urgent questions brought us to the modest headquarters of the Committee and more than modest office of Ilgar Rahimov.

'This is a present for you. Do you recognise it? Abe gave such a pen to Trump. You are the second,' Ilgar Rahimov smiles and apologises to our sports reporter Elmir Aliyev. 'I did not know that you would be together.'

'It would be better if you gave me pearl cufflinks,' I answer Rahimov's joke, reminding him of another famous gift from Abe to Trump...

But questions do not leave us a chance for nostalgia and memories of the days gone by. After all, with Ilgar Rahimov we worked in the same department for over two years...

So, today's guest of Azeri Daily is the honoured hero of the day, President of the Paralympic Committee of Azerbaijan Ilgar Rahimov.

Ilgar Rahimov

- Several days have passed since the Paralympic Games in Tokyo, emotions have subsided. And, probably, you already have a lucid answer to the main question: thanks to what has the Azerbaijani national team achieved phenomenal success in Japan?

- We have been going towards these achievements for a long time. At the 2012 Paralympics in London, we had an amazing result for that time: four gold medals, five silver and three bronze medals. After four years in Rio, we took only one gold, and at first glance it seemed that our results were getting worse. But at the same time, we had eight silver medals, that is, eight of our athletes were one step away from gold, losing only in the finals. I think this was our flaw. The athletes who reached the finals lost for some reason. Perhaps it was psychological preparation. Or maybe in weak pharmacology or not quite correct training process.

After Rio, we analysed our performance. It shouldn't have been that way, because we had a strong team even then. We invited psychologists and other specialists from the world of sports. We have a very good coaching staff, and together we have put together a more in-depth comprehensive program to prepare for Tokyo. So by 2020 we were completely ready.

- That is, the fantastic results in Japan did not come as a surprise to you?

- In general, no. Maybe the number of gold medals... I counted on 7-8 awards of the highest standard, and we won 14! At the same time, the athletes, on whom special hopes were pinned, did not take gold. These are athletes Olokhan Musayev, Samir Nabiyev, Elena Cebanu, powerlifter Elshan Huseynov... But at the same time, others surprised us. A discovery for everyone was Lamiya Valiyeva, who won gold in the 400 metres with a Paralympic record and silver in the 100 metres. Also worth noting is Vali Israfilov, who won gold in swimming. These are young athletes. The performance of our youth was a pleasant surprise.

And, of course, Raman Salei! He became a three-time Paralympic champion. Of course, we expected medals from him, but could not even think that he would win three times.

Raman Salei

- Analysis of previous performances, correcting mistakes, attracting additional specialists, good preparation... All the factors you listed are steps to the desired victory. But, probably, there was some kind of motivational force that pushed our Paralympians forward...

- Oh sure. Our athletes were going into battle! I am not saying this for pathos. Our victory in the Patriotic War inspired the team incredibly. When we were seen off to Tokyo, at the airport, the athletes were approached by members of the special forces, who were wounded in Karabakh. They handed the boys the battle banner they had fought under at the front and asked them to raise it in Tokyo. It was a huge motivation! In the Olympic village, the guys argued among themselves who would have this symbol of our Victory in the room.

And already on the first competitive day for Azerbaijani athletes, our powerlifter Parvin Mammadov won a bronze medal, although we assumed that he would take 4th or 5th place. Even then, I felt that something enchanting awaits us at this Paralympics, since our guy did what was previously unattainable for him, and gave confidence to other team members.

The next day we had three finals, and they took place almost simultaneously. 19-year-old judoka Shahana Hajiyeva showed character in a bitter struggle and defeated a Frenchwoman, Vugar Shirinli defeated a strong Kazakh, and in the pool Raman Salei won the 100-metre backstroke. In just one hour, we won three gold medals! My premonitions began to come true.

After three gold awards, we were shown a congratulatory tweet from President Ilham Aliyev. And everyone was overwhelmed with emotions, we just screamed with joy. We all remember how during the 44-day war the President tweeted about the victories of the Azerbaijani Army. And now his congratulations were akin to those good news. After the tweet of the head of state and First Vice-President Mehriban Aliyeva, the fighting spirit of the athletes increased incredibly. The guys received a huge influx of energy, and in the remaining days we won 11 more gold medals!

- Many Olympians have complained about the difficulties that the pandemic has created. But judging by the results of the Paralympic athletes, the postponement of the Games for a year only benefited them. Isn't it so?

- We were not afraid of the pandemic. It did not interfere with us. As I said, our team was perfectly prepared in 2020 too. We have adjusted the program so that in the summer of 2021 we will again reach the peak of the form. It was not easy, but our headquarters did a professional job. Both coaching and administrative.

- Your words led to certain thoughts. You say that the pandemic did not interfere, and the victory in the Patriotic War inspired and motivated our Paralympians. But how then to explain the failure of the Olympic team of Azerbaijan in Tokyo. Didn't the military triumph in Karabakh inspire them?

- I do not consider their performance a failure...

- OK then. Let's call it a setback compared to the previous Olympics...

- The guys fought, tried hard. Yes, we didn't get what we expected. Our Olympians raised the bar very high. We are accustomed to the fact that we must have gold. But other countries are also preparing and want to win.

- The other day the President spoke about the shortcomings in our sport. He stated that it is necessary to thoroughly investigate them...

- Of course, there are certain problems. And we must understand why none of the 44 athletes could become an Olympic champion. The President stressed that some federations were doing their work incorrectly. Apparently, they did not work out enough...

But I want to give an example of karate. This sport was first included in the Olympic program because the Games were held in Japan, the homeland of karate. There will be no more karate in Paris-2024. So, Azerbaijan was represented in Tokyo by three athletes, two of whom won silver medals. This is a very decent result. Of course, everyone really wanted both Rafael Aghayev and Irina Zaretskaya to win gold medals. But imagine, in the homeland of karate, not a single Japanese could take gold in kumite (fighting - Ed). There was a very tough competition, and in these conditions, two representatives of Azerbaijan left Tokyo with silver medals.

Rafael Aghayev

- You noted that the Azerbaijani Olympic team at the previous Olympics raised the bar so much that it could not keep up with it in Tokyo. Are you not afraid that our Paralympic team may suffer the same fate at the 2024 Paralympics in Paris? Well, 14 gold medals is a lot!

- To be honest, I'm already afraid of that. I would not like our performance in three years to be called a 'Parisian failure.' (Smiles) We have already started preparations for the 2024 Paralympics. It is necessary to prepare very seriously so as not to lose face there. We had 36 athletes in Tokyo. In Paris, we must increase our representation. We hope for 45-50 licenses, then there will be more chances for medals. We are also going to expand the number of sports in which we are represented. In Japan, we performed in six.

In the near future, we will appoint head and personal coaches and begin to form the backbone of the national team for Paris. In principle, we have a young team, and most of those guys who participated in Tokyo will be able to take part in the 2024 Paralympics. These 15-20 people are the backbone of our team for the near future. And they are already eager to confirm their championship titles.

By the way, I will return to the President's remark that our young athletes could not become prize-winners at the Tokyo Olympics. In the Paralympic team, the youth took the bulk of the medals. And among them there are pupils of the children's Paralympic movement.

- How, by the way, is it possible to develop children's and youth Paralympic sports in Azerbaijan?

- I confess, it's very difficult. In 2013, Azerbaijan was the first in the world to create the Children's Paralympic Committee. Then other countries began to study our experience. The difficulty is that parents are ashamed of their children with disabilities. Many hide them from society. That is, these children are actually doomed to live within four walls for the rest of their lives. At first, we had a hard time managing to convince parents and rid them of this complex.

Children-Paralympians

- Why did we come to the creation of the Children's Paralympic Committee so late -- in 2013? After all, NPC itself was formed in 1996. This question is addressed to you, because it was you who stood at the origins of the Paralympic movement.

- It's hard for me to explain it. Perhaps the Paralympic movement in Azerbaijan was formed gradually. Over time, they began to offer us to involve children in sports. There were some non-governmental organisations that came to us with such projects. This was the general idea we came up with. And it so happened that the Children's Committee was created in 2013. And today we already have two pupils of the committee who participated in Tokyo. These are swimmers Vali Israfilov, who won gold, and Dana Shandibina.

UNICEF helped us in its creation. We turned to this international organisation to help us with the regulatory framework: what kind of children can be involved and what kind of sport, how to train coaches to work with children with disabilities, etc. A very strong Canadian specialist was invited. He worked in Azerbaijan for a year. Together with him, we managed to create a children's Paralympic movement and force parents to abandon prejudices. True, not all. There are still those who resist. But in any case, we have achieved a lot. It is enough to look at the joy with which children compete with each other, and how happy are the very parents who used to lock up their children, not wanting them to play sports.

- Do these children train in special gyms?

- No, in ordinary ones. It's just that such gyms should be adapted to make it comfortable for people with physical disabilities to train there. Sometimes we are asked whether Paralympic complexes will be built somewhere other than Sumgait. And I always say that this is the wrong approach. Why do we need specialised Paralympic complexes when there are Olympic ones? It's just that these structures must be adapted in such a way that people with disabilities can use them. Our society must be inclusive. An Olympian can train with a Paralympian. For example, in judo, our Paralympians train with the Olympians, and this gives us very good results.

- During the Paralympics in social networks, along with the excellent results of our athletes, two problems were actively discussed. First, why do we need legionnaires in the Paralympic movement? We are talking here about the three-time Tokyo champion, Belarusian Raman Salei and Iranian Hamid Heydari, who won gold in javelin throw, setting a world record. And indeed, why should foreign athletes be involved in Paralympic sports? Here, after all, the goals are somewhat different from those in Olympism.

- Hamid Heydari is an ethnic Azerbaijani, who previously played for the Iranian national team. He himself turned to us, saying that he wants to play for our country. We didn't have our own Paralympians in javelin throwing, that's why we accepted him.

Hamid Heydari

As for Raman Salei, I don't consider him a legionnaire. Yes, he is a Belarusian and was born there. His parents live in Belarus. Raman's brother -- Dmitry plays for Belarus and is the Paralympic champion of Beijing-2008 and twice medalist of Rio-2016.

However, Raman himself has been playing for our national team from a young age. He moved to Azerbaijan in 2013, started working with our coaches, and I don't consider him a legionnaire.

On the other hand, I don't want us to separate the Olympic sport from the Paralympic one. The attraction of legionnaires in both cases should serve to popularise a particular sport. I am sure that today the disabled, who saw Raman's victories, will be eager to start swimming. And these are the future Vali Israfilovs. By the way, if you talk to Vali, you will find out that it was Salei who had a great influence on him.

We recently returned from Tokyo, but we have some many applications from people who want to go into sports. And this is the merit of Raman and Hamid. They raised the flag of Azerbaijan, sounded our anthem, and at the same time they motivate our teenagers with disabilities to go into sports. I think that legionnaires are needed in small numbers, especially in those sports that are not very popular in Azerbaijan. For example, swimming and athletics.

- And the second topic that interests readers. Among the champions of Tokyo there are athletes who recently competed among the Olympians. And they were in very good standing. How did it happen that after a couple of years they switched to the Paralympic movement?

- Yes, we have such athletes in para-judo. Judo is a traumatic sport. Numerous falls, in which the head bangs against the tatami, lead to visual impairment. And we identify such athletes and recruit them into our ranks. I would especially mention Vugar Shirinli and Huseyn Rahimli. They were the top athletes among the Olympians.

I will also say that the transition from Olympic to Paralympic sports is very difficult. You need to pass a serious medical qualification. I understand the viewer who looks at Vugar Shirinli and it seems to him that this is an absolutely healthy athlete. But this is not the case. He has a serious eye condition.

Vugar Shirinli

Let me tell you a secret: for the performance of some of our para-judokas, I sign a warrant for the International Sports Federation for the Blind. Before entering the tatami, the doctor warns: an athlete, in an unfortunate combination of circumstances, may completely lose his sight. Naturally, I warn athletes about this. But they are eager to fight, and we sign a document according to which we take responsibility for their health upon ourselves. Thank God, so far there have been no tragic cases.

In general, in order to get into Paralympic sports, you need to prepare a lot of papers. A group of international doctors conducts a classification, after which the athlete is either assigned to a sports disability group or is refused. And we had a lot of refusals. A very serious selection is taking place here, and it is absolutely transparent.

To be continued...

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