Both Azerbaijan and Armenia Refuse to Submit
When the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev (left), met US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld (right), in 2004, it is likely that they talked about wrestling. Rumsfeld was an amateur wrestler as a student and, when wrestling was briefly dropped from the Olympic programme, he wrote a scathing article demanding that it be reinstated. This led to a curious alliance in which Rumsfeld joined forces with Vladimir Putin and even with Iran in order to further his campaign. It was a remarkable demonstration of the power of sporting diplomacy to change implacable enemies into, well, frenemies.
Unfortunately, the wheels of diplomacy became jammed during the recent European Games in Baku. The tensions between Azerbaijan and its neighbour Armenia have been simmering since 1994, when they fought over the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region. There has been no formal peace treaty so the countries are technically still at war, and observance of the ceasefire has been far from perfect. The situation has now become so serious that, while drawing the qualifying rounds of the European Football Championships, UEFA has agreed to keep the two sides apart. Despite all this, there was an early success when Armenia was persuaded to send a team to the Games, an improvement on its absence from the Eurovision Song Contest, held in Baku in 2012.
Then the problems began. Many Armenian athletes chose not to join the delegation, including its two wrestling medallists from London 2012, Arsen Julfalakyan and Artur Aleksanyan, a decision which one source described as a boycott. The Azeri crowds showed little gratitude to those who did attend, booing the team during its march at the Opening Ceremony. It even whistled when a Ukrainian athlete, who is ethnically Armenian, received a silver medal from Ilham Aliyev. To be fair to Aliyev, however, he raised his hand to silence the jeers. The President is more diplomatic than his people.
The nationalist fervour of hosting a major event is not the most conducive atmosphere for political discussions. The Armenian wrestler Roman Amoyan was also loudly booed in a bronze medal match with Elman Mukhtarov of Azerbaijan. Negotiations are much more successful when they take place between leaders behind the scenes, as shown by a bout of Amoyan seven years earlier. When he fought with Rovshan Bayramov (above) of Azerbaijan at the semi-finals of the 2008 Olympics, the presidents of both countries were there in Beijing to watch them. Bayramov was the victor but both wrestlers won medals and, after the match, Aliyev shook hands with his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan. Maybe there should be more sporting contests between the two after all.
Next week: The reasons why the Micronesian football team concedes so many goals.