Azerbaijani athletes took home gold for the Islamic world as the only team from a Muslim-majority nation to finish in the top ten at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics on Sunday.
Beating their previous record set in London in 2012, the Paralympians from the South Caucasus state won 10thplace with 19 medals, the highest result achieved by a national team since Azerbaijan first entered the games at Atlanta in 1996.
A total of 14 gold medals made up the majority of the squad’s haul, with a further silver and four bronze medals added to their winnings. Finishing behind victors China who won 96 golds, with Great Britain and the United States in second and third with 41 and 37 gold medals respectively, followed by Russia, the Netherlands, Ukraine, Brazil, Australia and Italy, Azerbaijan was the only one of over thirty Muslim-majority countries to claim a place among the highest performing teams.
Neighbouring Iran was the next closest Muslim nation to Azerbaijan at 13th, with 24 medals altogether including 12 gold, 11 silver and one bronze. Next up was Azerbaijan’s fellow Turkic and post-Soviet state Uzbekistan in 16thplace, taking home 8 gold, 5 silver and 6 bronze medals.
Other successful Muslim-majority competitors included a North African trio made up of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco coming in at 28th, 29th and 30th while the West African nation of Nigeria took 33rd place.
Ambassador Elin Suleymanov: “Azerbaijani Paralympians have once again proven that there is no limit to human spirit and achievement. It is also important for us as a predominantly Muslim nation that among our Paralympians there is a great number of women who make our people proud”
Judokas brought home six of Azerbaijan’s gold medals. Shahana Hajiyeva, Sevda Valiyeva (pictured below), Khanim Huseynova (pictured below) and Dursadaf Karimova (pictured below) triumphed in Women’s Judo, while Vugar Shirinli and Huseyn Rahimli made gains in the Men’s competitions. The remaining 8 golds came evenly from athletics and swimming.
Three of the four Azeri judokas that won gold in Women’s Judo
Sprinter Lamiya Valiyeva took home her gold medal from the Women’s 400 Metres along with Azerbaijan’s only silver medal of the tournament in the Women’s 100 Metres, while Orkhan Aslanov bagged his gold in the Men’s Long Jump. Both Paralympians made gains in T13 category competitions set up for athletes with low vision.
Azerbaijani athletes also came top in seated throwing events with Hamed Heidari and Elvin Astanov winning gold in the Men’s Javelin and Men’s Shot Put respectively.
Swimmer Vali Israfilov banked another gold in the Men’s 100 Metre Breaststroke. The team’s highest scoring member was the triple gold medal winner Raman Salei, who swam to first place in three contests including the Men’s 100 Metre Backstroke, 100 Metre Freestyle and 100 Metre Butterfly. The swimmers triumphed in races for athletes with low visual acuity.
The Azerbaijani team’s bronze medals were won by four male Paralympians, including powerlifter Parvin Mammadov, long jumper Said Najafzade and judokas Namig Abasli and Ilham Zakiyev.
Congratulating his national team, the Azerbaijani Ambassador to the United Kingdom Elin Suleymanov told T-VINE, “I am proud of our Paralympic team and we owe these athletes a great debt of gratitude and a big celebration.
“Azerbaijani Paralympians have once again proven that there is no limit to human spirit and achievement. It is also important for us as a predominantly Muslim nation that among our Paralympians there is a great number of women who make our people proud.”
Ramen Saleh has been dubbed ‘Aquaman”. He won 3 golds in the pool in Tokyo for Azerbaijan
The diplomat also showed his appreciation for the efforts of British Paralympians, saying, “I also want to cordially congratulate the UK for finishing the Tokyo Paralympics in second place. I was especially impressed by an exciting campaign, “impossible to ignore”, launched by Paralympics GB in the lead up to the games.”
“Azerbaijani and British people share this particular interest for sports, no wonder British Petroleum has been partnering with the Azerbaijan National Paralympic Committee for a decade now and some of the Azerbaijani medal winners are BP athlete ambassadors,” Ambassador Suleymanov added.
Commenting more broadly on his country’s relationship with sports, Mr Suleymanov said, “Sports have always been important for Azerbaijani society. We have always participated in international sporting events and hosted the first European Games in 2015, Islamic Games in 2017, as well as four games of EURO 2020 very recently. The President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev shows a particular interest in promoting sports among the population in general.”
Elvin Astanov won gold in the Men’s Shot Put
Owing to its Eurasian location and heritage, the country takes part in sporting tournaments for athletes from Europe and the Muslim-majority world.
According to the CIA World Factbook, over 96% of Azerbaijan’s population identifies as Muslim. Both Sunnis and Shiites regularly pray side by side in mosques in the mostly Shia country.
The state, however, is officially secular, and is also home to longstanding Christian and Jewish minorities. Russian Orthodox Churches were first built in the country’s capital Baku in the nineteenth century, while Jewish communities have lived continuously in the country for over 2000 years.
Main picture, top, of sprinter Lamiya Valiyeva took home her gold medal from the Women’s 400 Metres. Photo © Facebook / National Olympic Committee of Azerbaijan