Paris 2024: in struggle, an Olympic qualification tournament disrupted by the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan

This is the penultimate chance for wrestlers from the Old Continent to secure a place for the Paris Games (July 26 to August 11)

Paris 2024: in struggle, an Olympic qualification tournament disrupted by the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan

This is the penultimate chance for wrestlers from the Old Continent to secure a place for the Paris Games (July 26 to August 11). From Friday April 5 to Sunday April 7, the European Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) for their discipline is held, where a total of 36 quotas are at stake: twenty-four for men and twelve for women.

However, the competition is organized in Baku, Azerbaijan and, as such, the Armenian team as well as several fighters of Armenian origin competing for other nations have given up taking part. The reason ? The decades-long conflict between the two nations over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Gagik Snjoyan is one of them. The 23-year-old Frenchman was supposed to defend his chances in Greco-Roman wrestling (− 67 kg) in the Azerbaijani capital, but he ultimately decided not to go. Question of security, he explained to RMC Sport.

The French Federation had assured him of a reinforced protection system on site, with a permanent bodyguard. He himself was ready to participate. But the fear of those around him took over: “They lost loved ones in the war,” he said. It’s all been building up, they have all these memories…”

It is therefore his compatriot Mamadassa Sylla who will replace him. The latter could cross paths with the Polish Gevorg Sahakyan, entered in the same category, one of the only two wrestlers of Armenian origin entered in this TQO – with the Ukrainian freestyle wrestler Eric Arushanyan (− 65 kg). If Mamadassa Sylla qualifies, Gagik Snjoyan will be able to say goodbye to his Olympic dream.

The precedent of 2015

This thing is far from new. In 2015, when Baku hosted the European Games, Armenian athletes had a complicated experience. Cries of hostility, thumbs down as a sign of death... During the opening ceremony, the country's delegation - of which only the officials had paraded - had been booed copiously. On the flag square, his had not been raised.

The wrestling events had been the most tense, the rivalry of the two nations being exacerbated in a discipline in which they excelled. The buses carrying the participants were flanked by two security cars. They were escorted by bodyguards at all times, including when leaving the mat after their fights.

Artak Margaryan, born in Armenia and arrived in France at the age of 12, took part in the competition. “I was under pressure. I couldn't fight well. I remembered that during the 2007 Worlds, in Baku, the Armenian wrestlers had taken glass bottles to the head,” he explained to Le Monde.

A last chance in Istanbul

Not reassured by his membership in the French delegation, he had almost never left his room and the grounds of the athletes' village. “Often locals would look to read my last name on my accreditation. People asked me: “What are you?” Between Armenians and Azeris, we recognize each other…”

More recently, in Yerevan, it was the Azerbaijanis who were taken to task during the 2023 European Weightlifting Championships, where five athletes were to compete in the Olympic categories. The country's flag having been burned during the opening ceremony, the national delegation chose to leave the country before the start of the tournament.

Wrestlers who failed to obtain a quota at the Baku TQO will have a final chance to win their place for the Games, at the World TQO, which will take place in Istanbul from May 9 to 12. According to the rules of the international federation, a country cannot participate in the world qualifiers if it misses the continental qualifiers, but there will be an exception for Armenia. Furthermore, several representatives of the country are already guaranteed to see Paris this summer, thanks to their performances at the world championships last year.