Azerbaijan’s Paralympic hero Ilham Zakiyev is set to make his return to international competition at the IBSA Judo Grand Prix in Baku.
Zakiyev decided to step back from top-flight competition after the Rio 2016 Paralympics, at which he was Azerbaijan’s flag bearer. He won gold medals at Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008, and bronze at the London 2012 Paralympics. He is also the holder of two world and seven European championship titles.
But the chance to compete for Azerbaijan when judokas from 36 countries, all with sight impairments, come to Baku was too important to miss.
“I know that all our fans and supporters in Azerbaijan will be behind us, and we will do our very best to make them proud,” said Zakiyev. “I would love our flag to be flying above all others at this competition.”
With a week to go before the start of the competition, Zakiyev was confident that the national men’s team is prepared for the challenge: “We’re ready. We have been training together at our camp in Goygol and the team is focused and in high spirits. We are so excited to have the chance to show our strength in our home country.”
The Grand Prix, organised by the Paralympic Committee of Azerbaijan, will be the first time a Paralympic licence competition has been held in Azerbaijan. Judokas will be competing for the chance to win a place at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.
Zakiyev said: “The licensing aspect of the Grand Prix makes this competition even more important and we’re proud it is happening here in Azerbaijan. Our judokas face some tough competition, but we are fit and we will be competing on home soil. I wish Azerbaijan’s athletes great success.”
Around 240 athletes from 36 countries will compete over two days of the IBSA (International Blind Sports Association) Judo Grand Prix, on 13 and 14 May, at Baku’s Heydar Aliyev Sports Complex. Entrance to the competition is free. Azerbaijan will be represented by 13 male and 10 female athletes.