The Azerbaijani Sports Machine
Coming from a family of sports enthusiasts and athletes, my view of Azerbaijan in the sphere of sports is one of quiet amusement. I think there are probably many Westerners who would come to Azerbaijan and note a strange character embodying Azerbaijani athletics. First, you notice the odd style of running, where an Azeri boy will quickly run a few meters, arms strapped to his side and seemingly immobile. You also notice that their international representatives seem oddly foreign to Azerbaijan or that they wear very fancy pants. And then when you encounter the actual games being played, such as basketball or volleyball at School #2 and School #4, respectively, on weeknights in Lənkəran, you probably aren’t very impressed with the skill level.
Yet, at the same time, there is something unexpected here that slips this picture of Azerbaijani athletics into a different frame. I encounter it when I do my daily run in the streets of Lənkəran. And when talking to neighbors about staying healthy. I’m lauded for my dedication to keeping my body healthy by working out. While running, in addition to the odd stares I get some cheers and lots of thumbs up at me. The other day, one man decided he would drive alongside me, not to antagonize, but to blast some rock music for me as I ran. He stuck with me for at least half a mile. He and his other taxi driver friend are usually at a certain intersection, and they’ll honk their horns and check the street to let me know if I should slow down at the crossing. It oddly feels like I have small cheering sections of complete strangers along my running route.
Then you come to the sports that Azerbaijan is really into. They don’t really think of running as a sport. And skiing isn’t very accessible to them. But they can sure wrestle. And they like boxing. Azerbaijani boys have an interesting obsession with martial arts. Watching TV, it won’t surprise you to see a women’s volleyball match (though, most of the good players are foreigners). And of course, don’t forget football/soccer (another sport where the majority of the best players are foreigners).
Next to my apartment building is a gym, where kids can be heard playing or wrestling even late into the evening. There is certainly a sports culture in Azerbaijan, but it looks much different than what a Westerner might be used to. Instead of sport-specific apparel, you can just assume that anyone in a track suit is a sportsman. The folks at the gym probably think I’m weird not only for running, but also because I wear running tights instead of my track suit.
So while the lot of foreigners here bemoan the lack of an athletically-motivated culture, it probably helps to see the plethora of headlines touting Azerbaijani sports: boxers in a Bulgarian tournament; Judoists in a World Cup competition; and of course, the ‘Azerbaijani wrestling machine‘. (Some might try to convince you that chess is a sport…I prefer to ignore that plea.)