Azerbaijan’s Paralympic judoka are determined to make a big impression in front of their home supporters at the IBSA (International Blind Sports Federation) Judo Grand Prix.
More than 240 judoka from 36 countries are in Baku, Azerbaijan to compete in the competition, the first time it has been held in Azerbaijan.
Ilham Zakiyev, double Paralympic champion in the men’s over 100kg from Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, proved that he is still a podium contender at the IBSA Judo World Championships in Odivelas, Portugal, in late 2018.
Claiming his latest major international medal with bronze, Zakiyev now wants to impress at the first competition of its kind to hit his country:
“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. I would love our flag to be flying above all others at this competition.”
Trying to stand in Zakiyev’s way will be Iran’s new world champion Mohammadreza Kheirollahzadeh.
With the Grand Prix offering points towards qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, a host of other big name judoka will compete.
Uzbekistan’s Feruz Sayidov picked-up a world title on his debut in the men’s up to 73kg in Odivelas.
Sayidov will return to the mat once again to face the likes of Paralympic champion Ramil Gasimov, who won bronze at the Worlds. This time however Gasimov will have the home crowds behind him.
In the women’s up to 48kg, France’s up to 52kg Paralympic title holder Sandrine Martinet will be back with a vengeance.
Martinet had to settle for bronze in Odivelas after being knocked out by South Korea’s eventual champion Soohee Choi.
However Choi has not made the journey to Baku, leaving Martinet and Azerbaijan’s Worlds silver medallist Shahana Hajiyeva as the top contenders.
“I have been training twice a day to prepare for the Grand Prix,” Hajiyeva, who at 18 is her country’s youngest Para judoka, said. “It is a very tiring regime, but it is my job and I love it.”
Success for Hajiyeva in Baku will also be an important step towards Tokyo 2020: “I am currently in ninth place in the world rankings. It is enough to qualify for Tokyo 2020, but I want to get a higher place in the ranking.”
Azerbaijan’s Bayram Mustafayev, Ukrainian teammates Inna Cherniak and Oleksandr Nazarenko, Turkey’s Zeynep Celik, Brazil’s Alana Martins, China’s Hongyu Wang and Kazakhstan’s Olzhas Orazalyuly are the other world title holders who will compete.
As well as offering qualification for Tokyo 2020, the competition is also an important part of the build-up to regional Championships taking place this year.
The Baku 2019 IBSA Judo Grand Prix runs from 13-14 May at the Heydar Aliyev Sports Complex. Entrance is free.