Sports behind enemy lines
Armenia and Azerbaijan, 2015
Words by Andrew Connelly
Millions watching the European Games sporting tournament in Baku, Azerbaijan witnessed a few brief flashes of Europe’s forgotten conflict, yet most people remained completely unaware. It was to be expected. Twenty seven years of war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, bombings, shootings, prisoners of war and the subsequent 30,000 deaths have elicited barely a mention in the international news media to this day, despite the renewed focus on the fragility of post-Soviet space prompted by the Ukrainian crisis.
The inaugural European Games – a continent-wide sporting extravaganza featuring 6,000 athletes from over 50 different countries – was a chance for Azerbaijan to flaunt the fruits of its oil boom. Construction of a host of stadia, accommodation villages, manicured gardens, press centres and paved highways cost an estimated $10bn. It was also an opportunity for sportsmen from neighbouring Armenia to compete in the country with whom they have fought for nearly three decades and are essentially banned from entering. The European Olympic Committee was instrumental in both encouraging Armenia to attend, and for Azerbaijan to agree – a decision that became a very divisive public debate in both countries.
In May 2015, we travelled to Armenia to meet athletes from a variety of disciplines. The Caucasus region is notorious for fostering combat and martial sports and appropriately Armenia went to Azerbaijan to compete in wrestling, judo, boxing, shooting, taekwondo and sambo (a mix of judo and wrestling originating from the Red Army). From crumbling downtown Soviet-era gyms to plush, mountaintop training centres built by oligarchs, we spoke with athletes, coaches and fans. Over cognac and kebabs, the national Sambo coach spoke of the symbolic importance of winning a gold medal in Baku, for the Armenian flag to be raised, and the anthem sung. The country’s most famous Greco-Roman wrestler (with a PhD in international relations) publicly boycotted the Games, such was the overbearing security, and audience hostility he experienced during a previous visit to Baku.
Meanwhile, along the breathtaking mountains and gorges of the Armenian border with Azerbaijan (outside of the occupied territories) we spoke with villagers living on the frontline about their views on the upcoming Games – the largest sporting event ever hosted in the South Caucasus – and whether they thought Armenia should send her athletes. Since a purely nominal ceasefire in 1994, villagers living on both sides of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border have lived in the shadow of sniper positions, and endured regular exchanges of ﬁre. Numerous buildings are riddled with bullet holes, many of them fresh. Yet the mood could not be more conciliatory – our governments fuel this endless war, they say, we could resolve it with them like brothers.
At the Games in Baku, we watched as the Azerbaijani children and adults erupted into jeers and boos whenever the Armenian athletes entered the stadium. After a vicious wrestling game, we read newspapers that rejoiced that Armenian blood was spilled on Azerbaijani land. At the opening ceremony, the Azerbaijani torchbearer was Ilham Zakiyev, a former soldier blinded after being shot in the head by an Armenian sniper. He was deliberately chosen by the Azerbaijani president to raise awareness for Azerbaijan’s plight in the conflict. ‘It was our scream to the world’, Zakiyev told us.
With no direct dialogue between the warring states and no progress by international institutions, many people ominously warn of a renewed conﬂict which could devastate the region and catch the world by surprise. The European Games exposed that the mantra of sport as an apolitical tool for peace was overshadowed by raw geopolitics, and an opportunity for nationalism and chauvinism to be exhibited, in a region which can ill afford more.