As Azerbaijan continues to recruit more gymnasts - the latest being European parallel bars champion Oleg Stepko of Ukraine - IG interviewed Altay Hasanov, vice president of the Azerbaijani Gymnastics Federation about its expanding program. Pictured: Oleg Stepko has been released from the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation and now will represent Azerbaijan, the FIG announced Monday.
As Azerbaijan continues to recruit more gymnasts - the latest being European parallel bars champion Oleg Stepko of Ukraine - IG interviewed Altay Hasanov, vice president of the Azerbaijano Gymnastics Federation about its expanding program.
Altay Hasanov, vice president of the Azerbaijani Gymnastics Federation
The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) made the official announcement today that 15 athletes from other nations would be joining the Azerbaijani national team. Stepko, a 2012 Olympian for Ukraine and 2010 Youth Olympic champion, headlines the list of athletes switching nationalities. Leaving Russia for Azerbaijan will be three artistic gymnasts — Ruslan Namazov, Anastasia Bolshova and Maria Smirnova — one rhythmic gymnast, one trampolinist, and four athletes in sports aerobics and two in sports acrobatics. Azeribaijan also recruited another trampolinist from Belarus.
Late last year, Azerbaijan officially recruited Russians Anna Pavlova, Konstantin Pluzhnikov and Yulia Inshina to join its squad from Russia.
The most famous Azerbaijani gymnast to date is world and Olympic champion Valeri Belenki, who is now one of the most prominent coaches in Germany. As a gymnast, Belenki won gold medals with the Soviet team at the 1991 Worlds. He also won three gold and three bronze medals at the world championships, including the pommel horse titles in 1991 and in 1997 (the latter representing Germany). He represented the Unified Team at the 1992 Olympic Games, helping winning the the team gold and completing a sweep of the all-around medals behind teammates Vitaly Scherbo (Belarus) and Grigory Misyutin (Ukraine). He competed "unattached" at the 1993 World Championships, as the Azerbaijani Gymnastics Federation had not yet joined the FIG.
Baku native Valeri Belenki, world and Olympic champion
Now a coach in Stuttgart, Belenky's pupils include German star Marcel Nguyen, the 2012 Olympic all-around and parallel bars silver medalist.
Mehriban Aliyeva, the First Lady of Azerbaijan, has served as the president of the Azerbaijani Gymnastics Federation since 2002. Expanding gymnastics in Azerbaijan is an absolute priority, she has said.
In the past decade, Azebaijan has experienced tremendous success by inviting Russian rhythmic gymnasts to join its team. The team won bronze at the world championships in 2007, 2009 and 2010. Alina Garayeva won five individual world medals between 2007 and 2011, including the all-around bronze in 2011, and five European championship medals from 2007 to 2012 (including the gold on rope in 2007). A two-time Olympian, Garayeva finished sixth in 2008 in Beijing and fourth in 2012 in London before retiring.
In addition, the national capital of Baku has played host to multiple rhythmic gymnastics events — including World Cup, world championships and European championships — and will be the site of the inaugural European Games in 2015.
A new National Gymnastic Arena in Baku is nearly complete and will be the site of this year's European championships in rhythmic gymnastics. Its construction may also would give Baku a chance to bid for artistic gymnastics events such as the world championships and World Cups.
IG spoke in-depth with Hasanov, the federation's vice president, about the history of gymnastics in Azerbaijan, its success so far, and further plans for expanding the sport in the nation in terms of both popularity and achievement.
Two-time Azerbaijani Olympian Aliya Garayeva, an eight-time world medalist
IG: Of course everybody knows about the great Valeri Belenki, but please tell us more about the history of gymnastics in Azerbaijan.
AH: It is pleasant that you made mention of Valeri Belenki, the champion of the Olympic Games in artistic gymnastics within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) national team. Belenki also won the bronze medal in the individual all-around in Barcelona in 1992.
These Olympic Games have a special place in history of the Azerbaijani sports. There had already been no Soviet Union by the time of start of the Olympiad, but the process of formation of the national Olympic organizational structure in the republics of the former USSR was still going on. As the new independent states were not able to send their own national teams to the Games in Barcelona - athletes from the CIS countries performed within the joint CIS national team. The first pages of sports history of independent Azerbaijan were being written namely there, in Barcelona. The name Valeri Belenki is, symbolically speaking, the living thread between the Soviet time history of Azerbaijani sport and its development after the restoration of independence.
Many sports disciplines in our country began to develop even in the years when Azerbaijan was a part of the USSR. And it concerns gymnastics — artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics and acrobatic gymnastics — in its full extent. Let us recollect: gymnastics exercises were a part of athletes' training for the performances at the Olympic Games even in ancient Greece, but development of artistic gymnastics in its contemporary interpretation fell on the late 19th century. Rhythmic gymnastics, which is more developed in our country today, dates back to the 1940s. The history of origin of non-Olympic sports - acrobatics comprised of trampoline and tumbling began in the 1920-30s. Azerbaijan was a part of the Russian Empire at that time, and, then formed a part of the USSR. And our gymnastics school was developing as a part of the Soviet school which was considered as one of the best schools in the world.
As far back in 1961, Azerbaijani sportswomen performed within the USSR national team at rhythmic gymnastics international competitions. Our acrobats achieved appreciable results at all-USSR and international events in 1960-1990s. But, despite all this, both rhythmic and artistic gymnastics practically were not developed in Azerbaijan itself. There were no good coaches, no equipped sports facilities, no developed network of sports sections in regions. We had nothing to do but create all this, practically, from point zero.
Today, gymnastics in Azerbaijan is one of the favorite sports disciplines with an up-to-date and well-developed infrastructure. Achievements of Azerbaijan gymnastics school are acknowledged by the world sports community. And all this has been possible due to heading of Azerbaijan Gymnastics Federation by our country's First Lady, Mehriban Aliyeva.
IG: How did Mrs. Aliyeva becoming president of the federation have such an impact on gymnastics in Azerbaijan?
AH: With the election of Mrs. Aliyeva as the president of Azerbaijan Gymnastics Federation in 2002, a new phase of development of this sports discipline began in our country. At that time, we undertook the very complicated task. We needed to do a lot for the development of gymnastics. Coaches, choreographers, doctors, managers, as well as sports facilities and training bases were required. All this demanded a tremendous organizational work and creative thinking. But, most importantly, it was necessary to have sophisticated taste and a sense of beauty as gymnastics, especially, rhythmic, is not only a perfected sports technical skill but also involves music and choreography. This is a very spectacular, beautiful and really aesthetic sports discipline.
Namely, thanks to Mrs. Aliyeva, gymnastics has greatly been developed and become popular in our country. Already in 2003, Baku hosted the first World Cup series in rhythmic gymnastics. Baku organized the world championships in this gymnastics discipline in 2005, which became the first Olympic sports world championships ever to take place in the history of independent Azerbaijan. Our country hosted two rhythmic gymnastics European championships in 2007 and 2009. In 2014, the next continental championships will be held at our new National Gymnastics Arena in Baku.
2004 Olympian Dinara Gimatova
Great successes have been achieved by our sportswomen as well. An Azerbaijani gymnast Dinara Gimatova qualified for the Olympic Games in Athens, for the first time since the country's independence. In 2007, Aliya Garayeva won the European champion's title in rhythmic gymnastics with rope and our girls ranked the third in a team competition at the world championships. In the years to come, the girls would have represented the country with dignity even at the Olympic Games, become the prize-winners both in a team competition and individual all-around at the world and European championships.
But the crowning accomplishment is considered to be an establishment of its own rhythmic gymnastics school in Azerbaijan. Our young and talented girls have already been training in Baku under the leadership of our national team's head coach, a Bulgarian specialist Mariana Vasileva, for several years. Today, a new generation of young coaches is rising — they are former gymnasts who represented Azerbaijan at international sports events recently. They maintain the level in a worthy manner the present day. Our junior gymnasts alone have steadily been taking the prize-winning places at the European championships for the last five years. This is striking proof that we have created a succession system of sports achievements in Azerbaijan. And this is a principal essential condition for future successes.
Other gymnastics disciplines are being developed in Azerbaijan as well. Thus, our country was represented by Shakir Shikhaliyev at artistic gymnastics competitions during the Olympic Games in London. Though he did not manage to repeat the achievement of Valeri Belenki, but, as the saying was, the most distant road would start from the first step, and, this step had already been taken by our artistic gymnastics school. Names of our sports acro pair Ayla Ahmadova and Dilara Sultanova went down in modern gymnastics history as well - this women's pair won the gold at the European championships in acrobatic gymnastics in 2009. Ayla Ahmadova, who continues her activity performing within the women's trio of the popular Cirque Du Soleil, has been elected acrobats representative in the Athletes Commission of FIG in 2013. Our country is represented in the Disciplinary Commission and Council, and, the Federation's Secretary General has been elected as the Vice-President of the European Union of Gymnastics (UEG) recently. This acknowledgement in sports world is really valuable. Such are today's results of the work of our Federation headed by Mrs. Aliyeva.
IG: I have read that Azerbaijan is working very hard, and investing a lot, to become more successful in different international sports. Mrs. Aliyeva stated that "the immediate objective is the Olympic Games, the World and European Championships." Will you continue to "adopt" more talents from other countries to help accomplish this immediate objective?
AH: Azerbaijani President Mr. Ilham Aliyev is the head of the National Olympic Committee. He regularly receives athletes and the federations' directors and inquires about their problems. Great attention is devoted to sports development in our country. New sports complexes meeting high world standards are being constructed both in Baku and regions of Azerbaijan. Sports infrastructure development is going at such a pace in our country that Azerbaijan will already host the 1st European Games in 2015. We've also held the World Amateur Boxing Championships in 2011, the FIFA U17 Women's World Cup in 2012. But the main thing is that we succeeded in changing of an attitude of the society toward sports.
Today, it is prestigious to be a sportsman in Azerbaijan. First of all, it is noticeable in rhythmic gymnastics. If, yesterday, Azerbaijani coaches and athletes preferred to seek an employment beyond the country's borders, both sportsmen and their coaches from foreign countries had been coming to work in Azerbaijan today. We live in the 21st Century, the age of globalization, and involvement of foreign athletes in national sports teams has become an everyday occurrence for a long time. At present, no one is surprised by the facts, for example, that head coach of the Russian football team is Fabio Capello, and, that the gold medal was won for Russia at the 2010 European Figure Skating Championships by a pair consisting of Russian Alexander Smirnov and Yuko Kavaguti of Japan.
Two-time Russian Olympian Anna Pavlova is slated to compete for Azerbaijan, with her mother, Natalia Pavlova, as head coach of the women's team.
Involvement of distinguished foreign athletes enables not only to achieve significant results at prestigious events, i.e. "to demonstrate the national banner." First of all, it is an opportunity to exchange sports technologies, both individual and team experience. Training in the same hall with masters in the literal and figurative sense of the word, young sportsmen learn a lot from them, adopt their practices. But, together with involvement of foreign specialists, our Federation carried out, and, would continue the great work in other directions. New sports facilities are under construction, sections in gymnastics are opened in regions, seminars, training camp and courses are conducted... And, today, gymnasts from other countries are coming to take part in the training camp in Azerbaijan.
IG: You have had some excellent success in rhythmic gymnastics, mostly with Russian-born gymnasts who became Azerbaijani citizens. Now the Azeri team is a big power, taking world team medals in rhythmic. But it seems most continued to train in Russia. And it seems Shikhaliyev trains with Anatoly Yarmovsky, but in Germany. Where will these gymnasts with new Azerbaijani citizenship train?
AH: The Azerbaijani gymnastics school was being developed as a part of the Russian school as far back as during the Soviet years, and, following the restoration of our countries' independence, we continued our close cooperation with Russian specialists. In the first years, our top sports "stars" - Aliya Garayeva, Dinara Gimatova and Anna Gurbanova, indeed, they were training in Moscow under the leadership of Irina Viner most of the time. This cooperation is still going on today, first of all, in artistic gymnastics.
So, we have recently got a European Champion of 2011 Konstantin Pluzhnikov involved in the men's artistic gymnastics national team. But, on the whole, Azerbaijani gymnastics school has passed the period when its development entirely depended on foreign athletes joined the national teams. Most sportswomen of our national team in rhythmic gymnastics are representatives of local clubs. Too young "little stars" are growing up and are even taking prize-winning places in their age groups in international tournaments. Finally, it is already a long time since the members of the rhythmic Gymnastics national team are training in Baku and they are mainly local athletes.
Yes, it is true that Marina Durunda started to engage in gymnastics in Ukraine and Alexandra Platonova in Russia, but they never represented either Ukraine or Russia at the competitions. And they "established themselves" as athletes of international level in Baku. A gymnast Siyana Vasileva has already been training in Baku for five years, from the moment of her mother, (Bulgarian) Mariana Vasileva's appointment as our head coach. And all the other girls are from our local clubs, like gymnasts to take their place in the future. There is the same picture in artistic gymnastics as well - Shakir Shikhaliyev is training in Baku after the Olympic Games-2012. Yes, that is true that they will continue to train in Russia. But, firstly, this is rather an exception than a rule today. Secondly, it is necessary to take into account that gymnastics is sports discipline to deal much with personality. Psychological contact between a coach and a sportsman is very important here. And, I do no think that it would be reasonable to "break" "destroy" well-established relations, ruining accustomed environment which enables the athletes to fully reveal their potentials.
IG: Many western countries (such as the USA, Canada, Brazil, Great Britain, Australia, etc), have experienced vastly improved results only after bringing in coaching experts from the big powers (Russia, Ukraine, China, Romania, Japan, Bulgaria, etc) not only to coach, but to train all the local coaches with the proper methods by establishing a national training program, from 5 years old to the Olympic level. Have you also considered doing the same - hiring a very successful coach (for example, former Merited Master of Sport or Honored Coach of the USSR) as a national team coordinator for long-term success?
AH: Actually, today, our federation is actively cooperating with many coaches representing major world schools in rhythmic, artistic and acrobatic gymnastics. As I have already mentioned, the Azerbaijani Rhythmic Gymnastics national team is headed by Mariana Vasileva, the Bulgarian specialist. The head coach of the women's artistic gymnastics national team is Natalia Pavlova (coach and mother of Anna). A Ukrainian specialist Yevgen Moskvin, who previously worked in Belgium, Qatar, Ukraine, is the head coach of the men's artistic gymnastics national team. And our young coaches work in the same hall side by side with them. Our federation holds local coaches' courses in different gymnastics disciplines several times in a year. Baku hosted the FIG Academy Level 1 for rhythmic gymnastics coaches with a participation of 17 local coaches early in 2013. Finally, gymnastics department's specialists of P.F. Lesgaft National State University of Physical Education, Sports and Health of Saint Petersburg, the oldest physical-education organization of the world, will conduct a workshop on very various gymnastics topics in the coming year.
IG: Right now Azerbaijan only has two FIG-level judges for artistic gymnastics, and both are in men's gymnastics. Does Azerbaijan have any female judges being educated to take the FIG test so they can be present in international competition?
AH: The fact of existence of recognized judges in gymnastics in Azerbaijan is another evidence of successful development of our gymnastics school. This is a significant recognition that our compatriots, Natalia Bulanova acted as a judge at rhythmic gymnastics events of the 1st Youth Olympic Games in Singapore and Rza Aliyev judged the artistic gymnasts' performances at the Olympic Games in London according to the FIG's invitation. Of course, we will not stop at what has been accomplished. Our federation held international judges' courses in women's artistic gymnastics and trampoline gymnastics in January, and, by its results, we will have judges in this gymnastics discipline as well.
IG: In the Soviet days, children were picked around 5 and 6 to go into special sports schools. Does Azerbaijan still have a similar selection program, or has it become more like westernized countries with a private club system?
AH: Both "western" and "Soviet" systems have their own advantages and disadvantages. Sports clubs, which we inherited from the USSR, are still functioning in Azerbaijan. These clubs founded under different institutions are still being funded by them. Private clubs established for the last years has entered into ever more visible competition with the old ones. But they are all operating according to the old system, which, today, certainly needs to be reformed based on international experience. This work is already in progress in our country. In particular, we intend to increase the efficiency of selection process of children into gymnastics disciplines. We plan to create general gymnastics groups for 5 and 6-year-old children and to distribute them into gymnastics disciplines sections according to their abilities after two years of training.
IG: In many of the former Soviet republics (and places like Romania and Bulgaria), many clubs have very old equipment and not enough coaches, even if they had more gymnasts to fill the halls. Is the situation the same in Azerbaijan?
AH: Actually, one of the most acute problems faced by our federation was a lack of sports halls and necessary apparatus in the first years. But the situation is completely different today. On the initiative of Mrs. Aliyeva, many sports halls, located both in Baku and regions of Azerbaijan, have been built, overhauled and provided with equipment meeting the highest world standards. For certain reasons, supply of sportsmen with necessary apparatus is a problem that cannot be solved once and for all. Constant attention is required here. But, today, lack of apparatus does not impede the development of national sports. And, this fact makes us happy.
The National Gymnastics Arena in Baku (pictured in February) is nearly complete. Inset: Mockups of the final design
IG: Baku has hosted many championships in rhythmic gymnastics, and now the European Games in 2015. Is Baku ready to bid for any major international events in artistic gymnastics, such as a World Cup, European Championships or even world championships?
AH: Our country has hosted large-scale events several times. Azerbaijan has a necessary infrastructure and economic potential. Therefore, international sports federations regularly select Baku as a venue for major competitions. It concerns gymnastics in its full extent. As it was already mentioned, we expect to receive participants and guests of the European championships in Baku in 2014, as well as the rhythmic gymnastics world championships in 2019. At the beginning of next year, we plan to bid for hosting the FIG Challenge Cup in Men's and Women's artistic gymnastics in February in 2015. And above all, the competitions to be held within the framework of the 1st European Games 2015. I am sure hospitable Baku will receive athletes and fans from various countries of the world over and over again.
IG: Right now the most famous active Azeri gymnast is... Russian Olympian Emin Garibov from Moscow! Do you think there is a chance he will compete for Azerbaijan one day?
AH: Of course, people closely follow Emin Garibov's successes within the Russian national team where he is also a captain. We cannot remain indifferent to his successes. We are happy for him and sincerely support him. But we have no right to demand from Emin, and, especially, from the Russian team his performance for Azerbaijan. This decision — whether to perform for the country where he was born, grew up, established himself as a sportsman, or to perform for Azerbaijan where his ancestors lived in — should be made first by Emin himself. Only after that the mechanism called "transfer," which has its own rules and procedures, can be launched. But I will repeat once again that we are cordially happy with Emin's successes in Azerbaijan, where we regard him as our compatriot first of all.
IG: Of course football and wrestling are very popular in Azerbaijan, but how popular is artistic gymnastics in Azerbaijan?
AH: Once, during the competitions in artistic gymnastics, T-shirts were being sold with the following popular inscription on them: "If gymnastics were easy, it would be called football." Of course, it is just a joke: I am sure there cannot be any "easy" discipline in big-time sports. Yes, people really like football in our country as in many corners of Europe, Asia, Africa, South America. People are fond of wrestling here as well. Popularity of Greco-Roman wrestling, freestyle wrestling and different kinds of various eastern single combat like taekwondo, judo or karate are based on deep historical foundation. Azerbaijan has its own national wrestling tradition. Its roots go deep into ancient times and the traditions are protectively passed on from one generation to another. And when our wrestlers win medals at prestigious international events, it surely has an impact on popularity of this sports discipline. Fortunately, one does not have to be fond of only one sports discipline. Now, we can state that rhythmic gymnastics has really become favorite in Azerbaijan.
Yes, it is true that we do not have outstanding names such as Olga Korbut, Alexei Nemov or Belenki for the time being. But people in Baku, Ganja, Sumgayit and other cities know well the names of our sportswomen, watch their performances, cordially become happy with their achievements. I am confident that major successes of our national team are yet to come. We have potential for it and we always feel support of the country's sports community behind us.