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Azerbaijan Recruits Three Russian Gymnasts
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Olympians Anna Pavlova and Konstantin Pluzhnikov will now represent Azerbaijan internationally, as will 2011 Russian world team member Yulia Inshina, the FIG announced Thursday.

Russia Olympians Anna Pavlova and Konstantin Pluzhnikov will represent Azerbaijan internationally, as will 2011 Russian world team member Yulia Inshina, the FIG announced Thursday.

The International Gymnastics Federation officially announced the changes of nationality for six artistic gymnastics on Thursday in its bulletin.

The popular Pavlova, a 2004 and 2008 Olympian, has not represented Russia in a major competition since the 2008 Olympics. Now 26, she has continued training and competing regularly and successfully but in smaller international invitationals. She has suffered from knee injuries, including a torn ACL following the the 2008 Olympics.

The 26-year-old Pluzhnikov, a 2008 Olympian and the 2011 European champion on still rings, reportedly decided to compete for Azerbaijan a year ago when rival rings specialist Alexander Balandin was chosen instead to represent Russia at the Olympics in London.

Inshina, 18, was a member of Russia's silver-medal squad from the 2011 World Championships in Tokyo, where she finished sixth in the balance beam final.

The former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, which has a population under 10 million, has achieved tremendous success in rhythmic gymnastics with imported Russians Aliya Garavayeva, who won eight world and five European medals, and world medalists Dinara Gimatova and Anna Gurbanova. Mehriban Aliyeva, the wife of the president of Azerbaijan, became president of the Azerbaijan Gymnastics Federation in 2002.

The oil-rich nation has not yet had a strong presence in artistic gymnastics, however, but has been attempting to recruit gymnasts from abroad.

Two-time Russian Olympian Anna Pavlova will now represent Azerbaijan.

Athletes switching nationalities for ethnic reasons or financial support is nothing new in sports, but Azerbaijan has openly adopted the practice of recruiting athletes, which erupted in an epic bidding battle prior to the 2012 Olympics. Azerbaijan agreed to pay more than $500,000 for two Bulgarian weightlifters, Boyanka Kostova and Valentin Hristov, to switch nationalities. However, when Bulgarian officials realized the change of nationality would occur prior to the Olympics, the Bulgarian federation reportedly demanded more money. The weightlifters eventually represented Azerbaijan in London, where Hristov won the bronze medal, the first for an Azeri athlete in the sport.

Azerbaijan also announced its intention to pump up its presence at the upcoming Winter Olympics.

"Azerbaijan will be represented by four athletes in the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi," Youth and Sports Minister Azad Rahimov said at a press conference in September. "Of course, it is not enough. The country has all the necessary conditions for the development of winter sports, so we can start to prepare the athletes. For now, we are holding negotiations with several sports federations to recruit athletes and coaches."

2012 Ukrainian Olympians Nikolai Kuksenkov (who now represents Russia) and Oleg Vernyayev both said they turned down lucrative offers to represent Azerbaijan.

The most famous gymnast to come from Azerbaijan to date is Valery Belenky, a gold and bronze medalist for the Unified team at the 1992 Olympic Games. At the 1993 World Championships, Belenky competed under no flag as Azerbaijan had not yet established an independent gymnastics federation with the FIG. He later went on to represent Germany, where he has since become a successful coach to two-time Olympic medalist Marcel Nguyen.

Shakir Shikhaliyev represented Azerbaijan at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. He lives and trains in Germany, where he is coached by Anatoly Yarmovsky, coach of Belenky and the legendary Alexander Dityatin.

The Azeri capital of Baku has played host to several major rhythmic events, including the world championships in 2005, and the European championships in 2007, 2009 and will again in 2014.

Baku also will be the site of the inaugural European Games, a new multi-sport event set to take place in 2015. The massive event will feature some 7,000 athletes representing 49 European nations in at least 18 sports.

Russia's depth has allowed more than a few gymnasts to continue their careers in other countries, including Andrei Likhovitsky and Dmitry Barkalov for Belarus, Daria Yelizarova for Uzbekistan and Yevgenia Kuznetsova for Bulgaria. Ukraine's Viktoria Karpenko and Yaroslav Vovk also ended up in Bulgaria. Two-time Ukrainian Olympian Alina Kozich ended her career competing for Uzbekistan in 2009.

The FIG also announced that former U.S. junior national team member Sophina De Jesus will represent Puerto Rico internationally. She is currently a freshman at the University of California at Los Angeles. Eileen Diaz also went from the U.S. junior national team to represent Puerto Rico at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

In addition, former British national team member Cameron MacKenzie now will represent South Africa. MacKenzie was born in South Africa but spent 10 years living in Britain and training at the Huntingdon Gymnastics Club. He placed sixth in the senior all-around at the 2013 British Championships in Liverpool.

Sweden's Oskar Kirmes, 17, is now representing Finland. He lives and trains in Espoo, Finland, where his father, Mati Kirmes, is a coach. Oskar's younger brother Robert Kirmes is also a gymnast.

Read a profile on Likhovitsky in the December 2013 issue of International Gymnast Magazine, and "Still a Stunner," a profile on Pavlova, in the December 2012 issue. To subscribe or order back issues, click here.

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