Blind judo athletes integrated at European Games
BAKU - Associated Press
Germany's Ramona Brussig (white) competes against Turkey's Gülhan Kılıç during their women's -57kg judo contest blind quaterfinal match of the 2015 European Games in Baku on June 26, 2015. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZThe inaugural European Games in Azerbaijan are breaking new ground for disabled athletes.
In what some see as a trial run for the eventual inclusion of disabled sport into the Olympics, blind judo is a fully integrated part of the European Games program and counts toward the overall medal table. At Friday’s blind judo competitions came all the passion, protests and dreams found in the able-bodied events on the program.
"I expected more from myself," said Russia’s Natalia Ovchinnikova, weeping after a defeat that put her out of medal contention, adding that she is still happy to be at the games. "It’s really classy here, better than everything."
For the last 27 years, the Summer Paralympics have been held in conjunction with the Olympics, in the same host city as the able-bodied games. The question of whether they could eventually be combined into a single competition is a thorny issue in the disabled community. Some argue the Olympic brand would give disabled sport much more public and media attention, others that Paralympians would risk becoming background noise when higher-profile Olympians compete.
Islam Ibragimov, the veteran coach of Russia’s blind judo team, believes the European Games in Azerbaijan could be the start of a new era.
"It’s a precedent. Everyone’s seen that it’s possible," he said. "It may work in the future, it may not, but the fact is that the Azerbaijanis started this story."
Blind judo holds a special significance in the host city of Baku, where a blind judoka is one of the country’s best-known sporting heroes. Ilham Zakiyev lost his sight when he was shot while serving in the Azerbaijani military and went on to win two Paralympic gold medals. He also had a starring role at the European Games opening ceremony.
Azerbaijan’s affinity with blind judo doesn’t mean that everything has gone without a hitch at the European Games, however.
Blind judo’s inclusion was only announced last year, when preparation work on athletes’ housing was well under way, and some blind athletes said not enough effort has been made to accommodate them.
Turkey’s Şerife Köseoğlu has struggled to adapt to life at the athletes’ village. A history teacher when not competing in judo, she said the design of the buildings has restricted her independence.
"The athletes’ village and also the venue is not very comfortable for blind people to go somewhere," she said. "I always had to depend on someone. Someone had to come with me and I would like to be independent."
There was also controversy as veteran Greek athlete Klimis Papachristos criticized a quirk of the rules. With only one weight category available, rather than the wider variety available at the Paralympics, there was no upper weight limit for the men’s event. That ensured some mismatches, including Papachristos’ defeat to Zakiyev, a man 48 kilograms (105lbs) heavier.
The host nation for the next European Games in 2019 is still unclear, as is the future of disabled sport on the program.
"(European Olympic Committees will) decide whether they wish to continue in the future, or indeed whether they wish to go a step further and have more athletes with disabilities participating in this event," the Baku games’ chief operating officer, Simon Clegg, told journalists on June 26.
"But I think it will have a really positive impact on these games, not only for the athletes who are participating, but also for many of the disabled spectators who will be coming to watch that event."
Azerbaijani spectators certainly left satisfied as Zakiyev won the men’s blind judo event and Sabina Abdullayeva took women’s silver.