Azerbaijan, Iran and Uzbekistan Celebrate a Sweep of Successes at the Tokyo Paralympics
Azerbaijan's Dursadaf Karimova reacts after winning the Women +70 kg Gold Medal Contest against Kazakhstan's Zarina Baibatina at the Summer Paralympic Games in Tokyo on August 29, 2021. Karimova is one of no fewer than four Azerbaijani women to bring home a judo gold medal from the Paralympics. Image: The Yomiuri Shimbun via Reuters
The Tokyo 2020 Paralympics – actually held in August-September 2021 despite the name – was a particular triumph for Azerbaijan with a haul of 14 gold medals by a team of just 35 athletes. Iran (12 golds) and Uzbekistan (8) also made great showings, Kazakhstan gained one gold, and Georgia took three silvers.
Judo & Taekwondo
In judo, many of the contests have proved to be very much Caspian-oriented affairs with an extraordinary six golds for Azerbaijan alone. There might have been one more had it not been for a positive Covid-test preventing the participation of Ramil Gasimov, Azerbaijan’s 40-year-old defending champion judoka in the men’s 73kg group.
Making a remarkable sweep, Azerbaijan’s five-woman team took no less than four of the six possible gold medals in the female judo competitions. Shahana Hajiyeva in the under 48kg category was the first of these, reaching the final without conceding a single point to any opponent. In the over 70kg final, Dursadaf Karimova beat Zarina Baibatina from Kazakhstan’s north-Caspian city of Atyrau. Sevda Valiyeva, whose father was himself a judo coach, won through against opponents from Uzbekistan, Turkey and Kazakhstan. In the 63kg field, gold went to Khanim Huseynova, who, before her eyesight deteriorated, had taken a bronze for Azerbaijan in a 2017 fully-sighted grand slam competition.
Azerbaijan’s Vugar Shirinli celebrates after winning against Anuar Sariyev of Kazakhstan, topping an all-Caspian podium in the >60kg judo category. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
In the men’s Judo competition, the under 60kg lightweight category saw an all-Caspian podium with Vugar Shirinli (of Azerbaijan) narrowly beating Anuar Sariyev (of Kazakhstan) while Turkey’s Recep Citfci took bronze. Uzbeks Uchkun Kuranbaev and Feruz Sayidov won golds in the 66kg and 73kg categories, respectively, Azerbaijani Huseyn Rahimli beat Uzbek Davurkhon Karomatov in the 81kg category, and Iranians topped the heavyweight ranges, Vahid Nouri in the 90kg category and Freddie Mercury look-alike Mohammadreza Kheirollahzadeh in the over 100kg.
In Taekwondo, Uzbekistan’s Guljonoy Naimova battled Brazil’s Debora Bezerra de Menezes late on Saturday night for one of the games’ last golds in the +58kg ladies’, while Dagestan’s Zainutdin Ataev took bronze in the +75kg men’s.
In powerlifting, Kazakhstan’s David Degtyarev dominated the under-54kg contest with a phenomenal lift of 174kg – over three times his own body weight and 9kg more than the nearest competitor. Iran’s Roohallah Rostami, born with a spinal impairment caused by polio, coasted to victory in the under 80kg category. His very first lift was 10kg heavier than the silver medallist’s best attempt, but Rostami failed to beat his own world record that he’d set in May this year. Though much more modest, the bronze for Parvin Mammadov in the under 49kg category was celebrated as Azerbaijan’s first medal of the games before the country’s later series of wins became apparent. Although placing only 5th, fragile-boned Kheda Berieva stood out in the female 73kg group, being one of very few Muslim Chechen women to compete at this level.
Ranked by a number of gold medals, Azerbaijan came joint 9th with Italy and narrowly ahead of Germany. Iran was placed 12th, Uzbekistan 16th. Ranked by total number of medals, Iran was 15th, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan joint 20th.
Though important, victories for competitors from Caspian region countries are not entirely unexpected in the fields of combat and strength contests. Far more unusual this year was the range of achievements in other sports, notably athletics and swimming. Perhaps the most remarkable was the double success of Azerbaijan’s young T13 (visually impaired) runner Lamiya Valiyeva. In the very close 100m sprint, she recorded a personal best and was beaten into silver by Spain’s Adiaratou Iglesias Forneiro, who won by the tiniest of margins (just 0.03 seconds). Valiyeva got her revenge in the 400m, beating Iglesias Forneiro by half a second in a Paralympic record time of 55.00 seconds.
Lamiya Valiyeva of Azerbaijan celebrates finishing second in the 100m finals, 0.31 seconds ahead of Azerbaijan’s Iuliia Ianovskaia, who came fourth. Valiyeva later took gold in the 400m. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo
Stas Nazaryan, Armenia’s only representative athlete in the Tokyo Paralympics, is a perennial competitor in a wide range of sports
Although coming last in his heat, nearly 5 seconds behind the winner, Nazaryan’s time was a personal best and a remarkable achievement for a 43-year old whose legs were lost due to a building collapse in the 1988 Spitak Earthquake. His sporting achievements since then have encompassed a whole series of disciplines, and he has reached Paralympic levels in alpine skiing (1998, 2002), sailing (1996, 2000), and cross country skiing (2018).
Field Sports & Team Games
One of the peculiarities of the Paralympics is a series of seated as well as standing versions of the throwing sports, along with ‘club throw,’ which replaces the hammer with a less dangerous wooden projectile that looks a little like a target pin in bowling. Champion in Tokyo of the F51 (most heavily disabled) club throw was Musa Taimazov, a 37-year-old Dagestani who had previously been in Russia’s wheelchair rugby team. Although Serbian silver-medallist Zeljko Dimitrijevic threw further than his own former world record during the contest, Taimazov carried gold (and the record) with his very first throw. In the F34 seated javelin, another world record fell to Iran’s Saeid Afrooz, Azerbaijan’s Elvin Astanov took gold and a Paralympic record in the men’s F53 seated shot put, while Uzbekistan’s Mokhigul Khadamova lost out in shot put but took gold in the seated discus.
Former power-lifter Arystanbek Bazarkulov, now competing in the F34 seated shot put, was a long-shot medal hope for Kyrgyzstan, which sent just two Paralympic contestants to Tokyo (the other being a female Judoka). In the F37 standing shot put, male gold went to Albert Khinchagov from the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz.
Morteza Mehrzad Selakjani (IRI), AUGUST 30, 2021 - Sitting Volleyball: Men's Preliminary round pool A match between Iran - Brasil during the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at the Makuhari Messe Hall A in Chiba, Japan. (Photo by Yohei Osada/AFLO SPORT)
In the men’s F57 javelin, glamorous Iranian-Azerbaijani star Hamad Heidari won with a world record-breaking 51.42m throw. Tajikistan’s sole athlete in the games, Akmal Qodirov, reached the final of the standing shot put, one of the very last events of the Tokyo Paralympics. Qodirov, now nearly 40 years old, had lost his lower left leg after a 2000 car accident. He went on to be an international arm wrestling champion in 2008, only moving into shot-put around 2019.
On the final weekend, Azerbaijan’s sight-impaired T13 long-jumper Orkhan Aslanov took gold with a leap just 30cm short of a world record. Then, late on Saturday night, the games reached one of its notable climaxes with the sitting volleyball contest. The men’s final pitted Iran against the RPC (Russian Paralympic Committee, standing in for Russia, which itself had been sanctioned with a four-year ban due to doping charges). Iran narrowly took the first set, looked more convincing in the second, but the RPC team stormed back in the third. An exciting fourth set saw Iran way ahead for a while, the Russians pulling back, but Iran eventually taking the match by a fairly convincing margin. An unmissable presence in the Iranian team was Morteza Mehrzad, who at 246m (8 foot 1 inch) is believed to be the second tallest man alive.
To ensure a relatively level playing field, most Paralympic sports have codes according to the type and severity of the physical challenges faced by the athletes. To make sense of these numerous categories, Lexi is a very useful resource.
In swimming, 18-year-old Azerbaijani Vali Israfilov took a Paralympic record along with gold in the men’s SB12 100m breaststroke. In the SB13 breaststroke, Kazakhstan’s Nurdaulet Zhumagali, usually nicknamed Nurik, gained a much-appreciated bronze in a fabulous race that saw Germany’s Taliso Engel beat the world record – the first time that an SB13 swimmer has broken 1’03”.
Raman ‘Roma’ Salei, born and resident in Belarus but competing for Azerbaijan, scored an incredible three gold medals in S12 100m swimming races (freestyle, butterfly and backstroke). His brother –himself once a star for Azerbaijan - meanwhile was beaten into 6th place for Belarus in the S13 100m butterfly.
An Islamic headscarf is not an impediment in target-based accuracy sports, a point proven by Zahra Neimati, Iran’s Paralympic flag-bearer and a high-profile campaigner for sustainable development goals. This year she repeated her successes of 2012 (London) and 2016 (Rio) to win the W2 wheelchair archery. The 2021 final was a nail-biting affair. Neimati appeared to be well in control until a last-minute comeback by Vincenza ‘Enza’ Petrilli, which saw the Italian clawing her way from 1-5 down to level the contest 5-5 in the last set. The gold medal thus hung on a nerve-racking shoot-off decider. Neimati kept her cool and took the gold.
Iran’s archery star Zahra Neimati practising on the Persian Gulf island of Kish.)
In the pistol shooting, another Iranian lady, Sareh Javanmardi, took the gold, and with it, a new world record. A masters graduate in industrial management, Javanmardi had also triumphed at Rio 2016 but ended up auctioning one of her two gold medals to help surviving victims of a 2017 Iran-Iraq earthquake that killed over 630 people. Her path to Tokyo 2020 had been a particular challenge due to the dire economic situation in Iran caused by international sanctions, which had caused problems with the soaring cost of pistols and lack of availability of practice bullets.
We are #Iranian.✌— Qasemebnolhasan (@Qasemebnlhasan) August 31, 2021
Iranian men and women teach the world humility.#SarehJavanmardi bent down on par with her rivals, because we value 💓FRIENDSHIP💓 more than winning medals.#Iran #TokyoParalympics pic.twitter.com/7GAUyKgTSI