Rafael Aghayev

Week 89 (13 - 19 June 2015)

The inaugural European Games got underway last Friday with a spectacular Opening Ceremony in Baku to set the standard for 17 days of sporting action. The Azerbaijani athletes have so far thrived off the home support, delivering a number of gold medal winning performances, and the hosts currently sit second in the medals table.

Kick-starting Azerbaijan's medal rush was Firdovsi Farzaliyev, winning the country's first gold in the men's Kumite -60kg category last Saturday. This was quickly followed by Rafael Aghayev, idolised in Azerbaijan and dubbed the "Maradona of karate", who beat Italy's Luigi Busa in the final of the men's 75kg Kumite. Aghayev carried a nation's weight of expectation on his shoulders and the home favourite had previously overcome a shock pool-stage defeat to progress to the final.

His post-contest reaction revealed the power of sport in eliciting emotions and it is easy to see why he became one of the early faces of these Games for the passionate local fans in Baku.

"In the group stage I couldn't put my mind together. I couldn't concentrate," Aghayev said.

"It was different in the final. I met one of my fiercest rivals and I beat him."

"In my motherland, in my first European Games, I have victory. I feel I dominated the final.

"I feel very proud and I have to say that the home crowd helped me a lot."

‎Aghayev's words were echoed by many of Azerbaijan's athletes, highlighting how much representing their country in a major home sporting event means to them. The outcome of Azerbaijan's medal haul will no doubt be to inspire the next generation of home-grown athletes; an important legacy goal of the Games for Azerbaijan and the European Olympic Committees.

Whilst it may be Azerbaijan whose sporting culture receives the biggest boost from these Games, the other 49 European nations competing in Baku will benefit in similar ways too, such as the exposure their athletes gain to the environment of a ‎multi-sport Games as they build towards Rio 2016.

Photo: Baku 2015