Azerbaijan sent 56 athletes to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this summer - the most in Azerbaijan’s independent history - but foreign athletes who changed their citizenship to compete under the Azerbaijani flag made for more than 60 percent of the delegation.
Transfer of allegiance or “brawn drain” is a fairly common phenomenon in the international sporting world, but for Azerbaijan, it would seem that it has become a matter of state policy.
In an interview following the closing ceremony of the Olympics in Rio, Azerbaijan's Minister of Sports and Youth, Azad Rahimov, said: "Entire nations are resettling in different countries. Look at the other teams. Italy has a Cuban boxer, and Dagestanis can be observed as wrestlers on almost every nation's team...if athletes themselves are willing to accept the offers and attentions of another country, why pose the question of how ethical this practice is?"
But the extent of this practice is also a fair question. Of the 14 female athletes sent by Azerbaijan to the Games, only three were ethnic, native Azerbaijanis; seven others were from Ukraine, two from Belarus, one from Moldova and the Russian republic of Dagestan.
The much larger men’s delegation was represented by a total of 42 male athletes, only 18 of which were Azerbaijani; seven were former Russian citizens from the North Caucasus, six from Ukraine, three from Iran, two from Bulgaria and one each from Slovenia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Cuba, Kazakhstan and Georgia.
In the London Games of 2012, only a little more than 30% of the Azerbaijani Olympic delegation was comprised of formerly foreign athletes.
This summer’s Olympic effort would appear to be a continuation of Azerbaijan’s attempts to put itself in the international spotlight, the repertoire for which has included hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012, the European Games in 2015 and Formula 1 of this past June.
According to Rule 41 of the Olympic Charter, all athletes must be nationals of the country for which they compete. In the context of Azerbaijan, which has very strict nationality laws that prohibit dual citizenship, this entails a very serious decision indeed for athletes who decide to leave their home countries behind.
Moreover, representatives of the IOC’s press office told Meydan TV that bylaws to Rule 41 only “envisage three possible scenarios where a competitor might wish to change his or her nationality: if their country has changed its international status, if they have changed nationality (perhaps, due to a marriage or permanent relocation) or if they are a citizen of more than one country…The IOC is against changes of nationality motivated by money and other unethical reasons.”
But it would appear that this rule is more a 'guiding principle' than it is a binding criteria. Of the 35 naturalized citizens on the Azerbaijani team, none come from countries that have experienced a change in international status in the past four years, and Azerbaijan is not an immigration hotspot.
Why do foreign athletes leave their native countries to compete for Azerbaijan?
Some athletes are unable to make the cut on their home teams:
Greco-Roman wrestler Maria Stadnik, who brought home a silver medal for Azerbaijan in her 48kg weight category in Rio, has been a wrestler for Azerbaijan since 2007 after leaving her native Ukraine.
She was deprived of her European Championship 2006 gold medal after traces of an illegal substance used to lose weight and eliminate traces of steroids from the body were discovered in anti - doping sweeps.
The ban imposed on her by the World Anti - Doping Agency (WADA) was lifted in 2007 - one year earlier than terms originally settled on in court. In 2008, her case was revisited by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, where a former teammate, Vera Tkhorovska, confessed to having spiked Stadnik’s water bottle. The court, however, was not convinced by testimony given by Stadnik and Tkhorovska, and the 2 year old ruling was not revoked.
Upon returning to Ukraine after the initial trial, she was told by the country’s Wrestling Federation that she would not be competing at the Olympics in 2008 in Beijing, and that a senior team mate recently returned from maternity leave, Irena Merleni, an Olympic champion at the 2004 games, would be given her spot in the weight category. As fate would have it, Stadnik later defeated Merleni in a 2012 match in Kiev.
Merleni's coach at the time, Ruslan Savlokhov, was also the head coach of the Ukrainian men’s Olympic wrestling team. Savlokhov denies the existence of any tension between the two athletes with which the athletes themselves seem not to agree: the two refused to shake each other's hand at the Beijing Olympics in 2012.
Stadnik was told that she could wait until the 2012 Olympics in London, but she and her coach felt that a four year wait would physically and psychologically damage her chances of effectively training for the competition. Savlokhov claims that “we didn’t let her waste away, and during her 1.5 year long disqualification from the sport, we took her to all the matches we could with other Ukrainian wrestlers…but Stadnik didn’t wan to wait for a spot to open on the team, and she decided to change her citizenship. Obviously, Azerbaijan offered her pretty good conditions…"
Representatives of Azerbaijan’s wrestling federation approached Maria Stadnik in 2007 and guaranteed her a spot at both the World and the European Championships if she were to transfer her allegiance to Azerbaijan.
And it would appear that she hasn’t looked back since. When asked in a recent interview with 1news.az how she feels about competing under the Azerbaijani flag, Stadnik responded: “All of my main fights have been for Azerbaijan. Honestly, I can’t even remember what it means to represent Ukraine…I’m joking, of course, but thanks to Azerbaijan, I have been able to show myself as an able sportswoman…In Ukraine, there were a number of things that prevented me from getting onto the team…and so Azerbaijan was a natural choice…after the Beijing Olympics, they gave me an apartment in Baku, perfectly repaired and comfortable. They really wanted me to stay and to continue to develop wrestling in Azerbaijan.”
As for the Azerbaijani national anthem, Stadnik says: “I know the first couplet!”
Sabah Shariati, also a Greco-Roman wrestler in the 130kg weight category, was also unable to land a spot on Iran's Olympic team. He has been competing for Azerbaijan since 2013, for whom he has brought home silver at the European Games, bronze in Rio and was the world champion of Greco-Roman wrestling at the Teheran games in 2015.
Despite his obvious talent, the Iranian Olympic Committee failed to see his skill. Shariati's coach and compatriot, Ayub Azmude, said in an interview in Rio with the Iranian Students News Ageny that “Shariati worked hard and deserved this Olympic bronze medal. When he was in Iran, no one paid any attention to him. He is a wrestler with a prospective future, and he is young, to boot.”
Unlike Stadnik, Shariati seemingly regrets that he has been unable to compete for his home country. In an interview with reporters from Iranian sports news agency, tarafdari.com, Shariati said: “I would have loved to wrestle for Iran and to honor my country, but it didn’t work out, they didn’t let me…they set me aside for four years. It wasn’t until the day that Jamshid Kheyrabadi (Azerbaijan’s head wrestling coach) saw the potential in me and said, ‘come to Azerbaijan, prove yourself to everyone!’ So I went. I am indebted to Agha Jamshid (Kheyrabadi) for this medal.”
Watch Shariati earn the gold medal at the World Greco - Roman Wrestling Championship in Teheran last year:
Reporters from the Iranian Students News Agency also asked Shariati if he would like to return to Iran to wrestle on the national team, to which he responded, “Of course, although I don’t think that United World Wrestling will give me the chance to return and wrestle for Iran. But if the opportunity arrises, of course I would love to wrestle for my own country.”
Other athletes find themselves forced - or purposefully seek - to change their allegiance for financial reasons:
Inna Osypenko - Radomska, who won bronze for Azerbaijan in the women’s single 200m canoe sprint in Rio, gave up her Ukrainian citizenship to become Azerbaijani for what she described as “banal, purely financial reasons” in an interview with Ukraine’s prosport media outlet:
“In the Ukraine, unfortunately, I have to train and pay for everything out of my own pocket. My patience for hearing the same but never - forthcoming promises finally snapped,” she told Prospect.
In a later interview in the same year with korrespondent.net, Radomska said that the Ukrainian Rowing Federation had been withholding pay for months, and that as a professional athlete, she would have been unable to continue without funding:
“There were a few things that forced me to shove my patriotism to the side. From the first of January (of 2014), we haven’t received a single cent’s worth of pay…My entire family is involved in sport: I’m an athlete, my husband is my trainer. If my husband were a businessman, maybe he could have financed me, we could have put this question [of nationality] aside…”
Radomska was approached not only by Azerbaijani sports federations, but had offers from other countries as well, including Slovakia and Russia. Of the latter’s offer, she said: “Russia? I’m a patriot. I didn’t consider it, not even for a moment.”
Her financial arrangements with Azerbaijan are secret. Her husband, who is also her trainer, told xsport.ua: “Yes, it’s true that we’ve received an offer from Azerbaijan. The conditions? We can’t tell you that - it’s part of the contract with Azerbaijan.
He also said that top officials of Ukraine’s rowing association had made no moves to keep Radomska in the country.
As for the reaction of other sportsmen and the couple’s friends, Radomska’s husband says: “They’ve reacted positively to our decision. Some of them can’t even understand why we’ve waited so long…”
You can watch Radomska's paddle to the finish line here:
Oleg Stepko, age 22, was once a rising star in his native Ukraine, where many hoped that he would become another claim to the country's gymnastic fame. After medalling in 4 out of 7 gymnastics competitions during the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in 2010, he was given due attention and was widely celebrated by his compatriots.
However, in 2014, in the run up to the 2015 Baku European Games, Stepko was approached by members of the Azerbaijani Gymnastics Federation and was offered to come train and compete for Azerbaijan.
When the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation found out about the offer, Timofey Nagorny, a Ukrainian businessman and philanthropist - also the ex-husband of world - renowned Ukrainian gymnast, Lilia Podkopayeva - offered Oleg a salary of $3,500 dollars a month and to rent him an apartment in Kiev.
However, Stepko was not persuaded to stay, and decided to accept Azerbaijan’s offer. He told korrespondent.net: “You understand the financial situation we have here in the country, in addition to the fighting in the East [of Ukraine]. And in Baku, they treat athletes well, they have good training centers and good conditions available for athletes who want to develop and work on themselves.”
He added: “Why should I waste my talent in an old, decrepit gym in the Ukraine if here [in Baku] we have totally new equipment?"
Since moving to Baku, Oleg has done well for himself. As a result of his many victories in the European Olympics in 2015, he earned more than half a million dollars in prize money. Although in a photo plucked from Stepko’s Facebook by xsport.ua, Stepko claims: “These prizes for medals are just enough for my transport!”
However, this is most likely an exaggeration: Oleg Vernyayev, a former Ukrainian and current German gymnast, told fakty.ua that in Azerbaijan, Oleg Stepko was making twice the amount he was offered by Timofey Nagorny: $7,000 a month.
Ukrainian gymnastics' fans have been less than thrilled by what many consider Stepko’s treason. At the time of Stepko’s transfer of allegiance, the head trainer of the men’s gymnastics’ team, Aleksandr Horin, tried to have him permanently disqualified from international sport: “I appealed with a letter to the former Ukrainian Minister of Sport and Youth, Ravil Safiullin, and asked them not to allow him to leave. He should have been disqualified, and the entire country should have been shown what happens to people when they act so dirty and basely…”
Regardless of his earnings and the opinions of his former country-mates, Oleg Stepko is fitting in well in Azerbaijan. After winning consecutive gold, silver and bronze medals in the European Games in 2015, Stepko told reporters from trend.az that, “I hope the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev and the First Lady and president of the Azerbaijani Gymnastics Federation, Mehriban Aliyeva, are happy with my results. I’d like to thank them for their support, and for the fact that they believed in me.”
Here is a video of his gold medal performance in the Baku European Games in 2015:
Stepko went on to say in an interview with 1news.az that he was happy “to be promoting the image of this fantastic country…”
Stepko came in 22nd place at the Rio men's individual all - around gymnastics competition.
The details of the monetary agreements between foreign athletes and different Azerbaijani sporting federations are hard to come by. However, we do have evidence of the kind of money that Azerbaijan has been willing to pay its athletes for success in the international sporting arena.
Victors of the Azerbaijani team at Baku’s European Games in 2015 were well - rewarded. Winners of gold and their cocahes were awarded a total of 225,000 AZN ($213,750 USD at the time): 100 from the State on the president’s order, 50 from the National Olympic Committee, and 75 given to the trainer from an unspecified source. Winners of silver medals were given a total of 120,000 AZN ($114,000 USD at the time): 50, 30, 40. Winners of bronze - 75,000 AZN ($71,250 USD): 30, 20, 25.
In total, Azerbaijani athletes at the European Games were awarded a little more than 8,000,000 AZN, which at the time was equivalent to about 7,600,000 US dollars.
You can download a complete PDF file with the athletes' names and their reward money here.
For the Olympics in Rio, President Ilham Aliyev also signed an order for the awarding of athletes who medaled at the competitions. Gold medal winners (1) are to be given 400,000 AZN ($250,000 USD), silver medalists - 200,000 AZN ($124,000 USD) and bronze - 100,000 AZN or $62,000 USD.
At this year’s Olympics, Azerbaijani athletes brought home a total of 18 medals - 1 gold, 7 silver and 10 bronze, which means that the government will pay out close to 2,800,000 AZN ($1,712,374 USD). 11 of the 18 medalists were 'legionnaire athletes' - naturalized Azerbaijani citizens.
By comparison, the USA offers rewards of $25,000 to gold medalists, $15,000 for silver medalists and $10,000 for bronzers.
The government of Azerbaijan defends its foreigner - saturated team by pointing to the fact that the practice is, indeed, common around the world. However, there are few countries around the world where politicians have taken such an active interest in their countries sporting federations. To start, Azerbaijan's National Olympic Committee is headed by the country's president, Ilham Aliyev: his wife and First Lady, Mehriban Aliyeva, sits on the board of directors.
Other sports federations headed by powerful individuals in Azerbaijan include:
With such powerful and influential figures overseeing the administration of Azerbaijan's sporting federations, Azerbaijani sport has been in a good position to receive much attention in the past years from the government.
However, Azerbaijan's currency and economy have gone through two severe devaluations and recessions in the past two years, and the economy is in a highly fragile state.
Should sport really a priority for Azerbaijan right now?
In addition to Azerbaijan's financial issues, the ethicacy of 'buying' foreign athletes might appear to some as contrary to the spirit of the Olympic Games. Whereas some officials in Azerbaijan might see the purpose of the Games as a way to promote the status and prestige of the country on the world stage, the Olympic Committee sees the goal of the Games as "building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play."
Last of all, and perhaps most importantly, why has Azerbaijan focussed on importing foreign athletes instead of investing in its own, local talent? If millions of manat are to be spent on promoting Azerbaijan and raising its profile in the international sporting community, could these same sums not have been used to identify and cultivate local talent, instead? After all, Azerbaijani athletes have long been known for their prowess in weight - lifting, the martial arts and gymnastics: a more attentive approach to local athletes might turn out to be a more sure fire way to earn respect and prestige abroad.