Patriot Games: Turkish Sprinter's Gold Occasions Pride, Controversy, in Azerbaijan

Ramil Guliyev, who was born in Azerbaijan but competes for Turkey, racing at the 2017 World Athletics Championships, where he won gold in the 200 meters. (photo: Erik van Leeuwen, Wikimedia Commons)

After winning the 200 meters spring at this month's World Athletics Championships, Ramil Guliyev took a victory lap holding two flags - Azerbaijani and Turkish.

Guliyev was born in Azerbaijan when it was still part of the Soviet Union, but in 2011 he applied for Turkish citizenship. Azerbaijani authorities protested the move, called him a traitor and demanded his compliance with international rules forcing him to wait three years before competing for Turkey.

Guliyev complied. And when he won on August 11 – bringing Turkey its first-ever gold medal in the country’s World Championship history – he was celebrated in Azerbaijan as well as in Turkey.

Following the race, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev wrote a letter to the victorious athlete. “I would like to note that for the first time, an Azerbaijani athlete becomes the world champion in athletics, he wrote.“It is gratifying that you raised the flags of Azerbaijan and Turkey. It shows that you are a patriot devoted to your people.”

But the same day, muckraking website haqqin.az dug up old interviews where senior sporting officials criticized Guliyev's patriotism. “I haven't heard that he's won anywhere,” said Chingzhiz Huseynzadeh, head of Azerbaijan’s Athletics Federation, in 2011. “That shows that the pursuit of money doesn't always bring success.” Huseynzadeh contrasted Guliyev with another athlete that he singled out as a “patriot.”

The ensuing controversy forced Huseynzadeh to address those old remarks. Speaking at an August 15 press conference he said: “Today he is a hero and we are proud of him. However, I stand by my words six years ago, that [when he sought Turkish citizenship] he committed desertion.”

In Azerbaijan, the government is deeply embedded in the sports industry. The country’s National Olympic Committee is headed by the country’s president, Ilham Alyev, and his wife and first vice president, Mehriban Aliyeva, sits on its board of directors. Many of the most powerful figures in Azerbaijani sport are also personally connected to the president himself.

Sports spectacles, including the 2015 European Games in Baku and a Formula 1 event and the Islamic Solidarity Games this summer, are being used as a form of public relations to boost the country’s international profile. They also, some critics charge, serve to whitewash Azerbaijan’s abysmal human rights record.

Much of this prestige is gained thanks to foreign talent. Azerbaijan sent 56 athletes to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro last summer – the most in the country’s history. But more than 60 percent of them were foreign athletes who had recently gained Azerbaijani citizenship.

Government officials are quick to justify such figures. In an interview after the Olympics, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Sports Azad Rahimov said that “if athletes are willing to accept the offers of another country, why pose the question of how ethical the practice is?”

But the extent of the practice in Baku is abnormally high. Of the 14 female athletes sent by Azerbaijan to the Games, only three were native Azerbaijanis. In the larger men’s delegation, just 18 out of 42 of the athletes were Azerbaijani.

And brawn doesn’t come cheap. Successful members of the Azerbaijani team at Baku’s European Games in 2015 were well rewarded. Gold medal winners received 225,000 Azerbaijani manats ($213,750 at the time), with smaller prizes given to silver and bronze medalists. In total, Azerbaijani athletes were paid 8,000,000 manats ($7,600,000). For the Olympic Games in Rio, President Ilham Aliyev again signed an order to reward athletes who medaled in the competitions.

The practice of hiring foreign athletes got unwanted attention earlier this month when the British newspaper The Guardian published an interview with Lily Abdullayeva, an Ethiopian-born runner who competed internationally for Azerbaijan. Abdullayeva charged that Azerbaijani sporting officials withheld money she earned and forced her to take performance-enhancing drugs. At his press conference, Huseynzadeh also addressed Abdullayeva's claims, noting that she had made enough money to buy a house and start a business in Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, many accuse the Azerbaijani government of failing to provide for local talent. Explaining his decision to pursue Turkish citizenship, Guliyev claimed that facilities were limited and that he was not receiving adequate training for international events.

After winning a race in May, Guliyev again brandished his Turkish and Azerbaijani flags. Explaining the decision at the time, he said: “The audience reacted very warmly and there was not a hint of discontent. Everyone was pleased. People understand everything perfectly.”

Patriot Games: Turkish Sprinter's Gold Occasions Pride, Controversy, in Azerbaijan

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