Azerbaijan harbouring high hopes a week from Games opening

7 May 2017

Hosts Azerbaijan will be gunning for gold at the fourth Islamic Solidarity Games, ahead of the opening ceremony in just a week's time.

Afghanistan were the first delegation to arrive in Baku on Thursday and Cameroon and Palestine were due to land on Friday, although the Palestinian media department said that 25 of their 105-strong team had been stopped from leaving the Gaza Strip by Israeli authorities.

The football competition kicks off on Monday as the hosts face Cameroon in their first Group A clash and Saudi Arabia take on Morocco.

Although strong teams with over 300 athletes have been named by the likes of Azerbaijan and Iran, some countries are struggling with funding, and Oman were forced to withdraw from the swimming and shooting events.

Meanwhile Malaysia, who brought home 72 medals from Indonesia four years ago, 26 of them gold, have opted to send just 33 athletes.

"We decided to send a smaller group of athletes this time around because, right now, we are preparing the Southeast Asian Games which will be held in August in Malaysia," explained Mohd Yaim Yusof of the Malaysian Olympic Committee.

- Hosts under pressure to produce goods -

In the previous two editions to have gone ahead, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia both topped the medals tables as the host nation, so the pressure is on Azerbaijan to deliver.

Rhythmic gymnast Marina Durunda, 19, will bid for a possible five Solidarity Games gold medals in her first competition of the year after a hand injury.

"I know how important all the competitions here in Baku are," she told on Thursday. The other countries here will not be that strong, not all of the world is coming. I'm trying to be (confident) and I had the injury. But I was very good before and we're trying to get back into that shape, but thankfully I didn't get far off that shape, so I hope everything will be fine."

Ukrainian Iryna Kindzerska, who won under-78kg bronze at the 2013 European championships and narrowly missed out on a medal at the London 2012 Olympics, was added to the hosts' judo outfit.

The home country also named a strong boxing squad, with former world amateur champions Javid Chalabiyev (bantamweight) and Magomedrasul Majidov (super heavyweight) included alongside 2012 Olympic heavyweight bronze medallist Teymur Mammadov, who carried the Azerbaijani flag at the Olympic opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro last summer.

The other combat sports will also be key to their hopes of following in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, with many foreign-born athletes harbouring real medal ambitions in karate, taekwondo and wrestling.

- Long-term Olympic ambition -

Sixteen top-level venues will be used for next week's Games, as all 57 Islamic Solidarity Sports Federation countries will compete for the first time, across 20 different sports.

Security has been ramped up in Baku for the build-up to a Games which Azerbaijan is desperate to go as smoothly as possible, with extra police deployed in public places and outside diplomatic buildings.

On Friday a 'Baku 2017' traffic lane was opened, to help athletes, journalists and supporters avoid getting caught out on the busy roads of a city with more than two million inhabitants.

For now the focus is on winning plenty of medals in the Games with 'victory days' planned to celebrate any of the 335 Azerbaijani athletes who manage to strike gold.

But the longer-term goal is clearly to win the rights to host the Olympics, and a top official said that the country would not give up on that dream.
"I think that it's the dream of the country, and we are on that road," said Azerbaijan Islamic Solidarity Games Operations Committee (AISGOC) corporate director Elchin Safarov.

"We were ready for 2024, but it's the dream and we will go for it. We're not going to stop on this. "For every Olympic meeting we will give our candidacy for this city."

The Games will be kicked off by the first football group matches on May 8, with the handball competition beginning the following day.

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