Ambassadors in Sport?: Independent Armenia far below the glory of Soviet times on the pitch, mat

When Armenia gained independence in 1991, its athletes earned the right to participate in international events representing their own nation.

That opportunity was taken with great enthusiasm both in Armenia and its Diaspora as there were all grounds for high expectations.

Podiums full of Armenian sportsmen had brought glory to the USSR in different sports and Armenians reasonably expected that the flag of independent Armenia would be raised and its anthem performed on many occasions to celebrate future victories.

In one of his last interviews, late gymnast Hrant Shahinian, the first Armenian gold medalist in modern Olympics (two gold and two silver medals in gymnastics at the 1952 in Helsinki) said that Armenian sportsmen “had to outdo their opponents by several notches for the shot at being accepted onto any Soviet team. But those difficulties notwithstanding, 90 percent of Armenian athletes on Soviet Olympic teams came back with medals.”

The belief in the brighter future of post-independence Armenian sports became even stronger just a year after independence. At the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, four Armenian athletes (out of five taking part) won medals (three gold and one silver – in weightlifting, marksmanship, and wrestling) – and that in itself was a record – but no tricolor was raised and no anthem played. The winning Armenians were part of the so-called United Team (or the joint CIS team) performing under the Olympic emblem for the flag and under Beethoven’s Ode to Joy for the anthem.

Major wins since then became few and far between. Armenian sportsmen won one gold and one silver medal in Atlanta in 1996. And when the tricolor finally was raised, it flew – perhaps as an omen – upside down.

Remarkably, wrestler Armen Nazaryan who won the gold for Armenia in Atlanta, repeated his success four years later in Sydney. But he did so wearing the uniform of Bulgaria, signaling Armenian sports’ “muscle drain”, to coincide with migration’s “brain drain”.

Media and sportsmen called the latest Olympics in Athens in 2004, a disgrace for Armenia, as the team could not even come close to first place in any of the four sports they were competing in (athletics, boxing, judo, wrestling).

Analyst David Petrosian, who was writing about those Olympics, remembers how the public in Armenia was looking forward to seeing an Armenian medal in Greece, and how great the disappointment was with the team’s performance.

“In the recent years Armenian sport officials have ‘eaten away’ the store of strength that remained from the Soviet years. Today, big sport is in the position of Cinderella in Armenia,” Petrosian says. “Only one Armenian boxer, 33-year-old Alexan Nalbandian (48 kg) participated in the Athens Games and reached the quarterfinal. His training began in the sport system of Soviet Armenia. And where are other boxers?”

It is no secret that there are a number of Armenian boxers who prefer living and training abroad. Among them are two professional boxers who made big headlines in the last couple of years: International Boxing Federation (IBF) middleweight world champion Arthur Abraham (Germany) and IBF/IBO (International Boxing Organization) flyweight champion Vic (Vakhtang) Darchinian (Australia).

Vic, “the Raging Bull”, Darchinian hails from Vanadzor, a town in northern Armenia. He was a member of Team Armenia at the Olympics in Sydney, but was defeated in his first fight. Now an Australian citizen, Darchinian calls himself an “Armenian Aussie” and frequently comes to visit Armenia. He did so after he won his first world title in professional boxing. “The fans there (in Armenia) are waiting for me to celebrate,” he explained.

The five-time IBF flyweight world champion and four-time IBO flyweight world champion is the first Armenian boxer who won a champion’s title in professional boxing. He lives, trains and represents Australia. But before each of his fights the Armenian anthem is played and an Armenian flag is raised. During his recent visit to Armenia (in late June) to open a boxing club in his native town he said he was losing money (through missed sponsorship) by continuing to appear in the ring under the Armenian flag: “But it doesn’t matter to me, my homeland is all that matters,” he said.

While a couple Armenians in boxing are performing respectably, winning ways in football (soccer) seem to have been forgotten in the country that once had a team capable of beating world champions.

Yerevan’s FC (Football Club) Ararat won everything possible in the Soviet Union in the mid-70s and staged a dazzling performance in European cup competitions beating FC Bayern Munich (then a club with world champion players).

In the last several years of the Soviet football championship Armenia’s best club could not finish within the top six, which would allow them to play in international competitions. And the general mood was that independence would automatically bring bigger, better football to Armenia.

Indeed, the Football Federation of Armenia became a member of the European and international football governing bodies - UEFA and FIFA - in 1992 and the team began to participate in qualifying tournaments for European and World Cups. Membership in the big organizations, though, did not translate to success on the field. The National Team has been at, or near, the bottom of standings in international competition.

The same, concerns Armenian clubs that, although allowed to play in European club competitions, have always been eliminated at early stages, though usually playing against mediocre European teams representing weak leagues.

The Armenian national football team has had five coaches in the last four years. All five (Argentinean, Romanian, French, Dutch, Scot) have been foreigners, brought in with a mandate to up-grade the National Team’s performance.

The Football Federation claims it is doing everything possible to raise the standard of football in Armenia when it plays arch-rival Azerbaijan, next year.

Experts think that in order to have a good National Team there should first of all be a strong national championship. The local clubs suffer against international competition because the level of competition inside Armenia is low.

“Football Plus” sports weekly editor Ashot Martirosian says that Armenia’s current national championship “has been turned into Yerevan’s open championship.”

“As a matter of fact, all teams represent Yerevan, meanwhile it is impossible to imagine how to achieve progress in football without developing football in the regions,” he says.

Alexander Grigorian, staff correspondent of the Rossiyski Futbol (“Russian Football”) newspaper in Armenia, says that now in football and other sports a generation from “the years of hardship” (1993-1997) is coming.

“Sport schools in Armenia have virtually not functioned for 10 years. The Soviet school has been destroyed and no new one has been built yet. With small salaries, coaches do not train children well enough and sports do not enjoy nationwide support as they did in the past,” Grigorian says. “If they start changing things in sport now, then in 10 years perhaps we will achieve some result.”

Grigorian says that President of the National Olympic Committee of Armenia (NOCA) Gagik Tsarukian is “making a splash”, instead of rebuilding the sports school he is trying to buy Olympic medals with money, recruiting sportsmen from other countries.

“Instead, money must be invested in sport infrastructure and sport schools for home-grown sportsmen,” Grigorian says.

Armenian tycoon Tsarukian became the NOCA president after the failed Olympics in Athens.

In mid-March 2006, Tsarukian, himself a former wrestler, coach and European and world champion in arm-wrestling, unveiled plans to guarantee medals in the next Olympics in Beijing 2008.

He said that eight Russian wrestlers, including world and European champions, would join the national wrestling team of Armenia. Winners are promised generous cash incentives. As announced by Tsarukian, in the event of winning the 2008 Olympics each of the Russian wrestlers will receive $500,000 from Armenia’s National Olympic Committee; and Armenians who win Olympic gold will receive $700,000.

“It is important that the Armenian flag be raised and the national anthem performed,” Tsarukian said, responding to challenges that money should be invested in young sportsmen rather than in winning medals through sportsmen raised by other nations.

But to encourage Armenian athletes and their coaches, Tsarukian also assigned monthly stipends to about 100 of the country’s best athletes in summer sports and their payment began on April 1.

They are divided into three groups. The best 12 will get $1,000, the second group will get $500, and third group will get $100. Coaches of these athletes will also get a monthly stipend – half of the sum assigned to their trainees.

The overall sum of stipends is $30,000 per month.

Yuri Alexanian, of the State Committee for Sports and Physical Culture, says that sport is a general reflection of the situation in the country.

“Those in charge of a certain sport, no matter how much money they have or who they are, should reckon with and respect professionals involved in it,” he said. “Everyone should feel for sports and be ‘Armenian’ when it comes to sports.”

Alexanian praises the current and past contributions of Tsarukian to sports in Armenia. But personally, as an Armenian, he doesn’t feel too happy that representatives of other nations will perform for Armenia. Yet, he admits that in this way Tsarukian increases competition in the teams.

“This is a slap in the face of Armenian athletes and specialists, but it should have been expected. If you cannot produce good athletes and win medals, then you deserve it,” Alexanian said, adding that financing of sports in Armenia, just like many other spheres, is still far from adequate.

The government of Armenia budgets 1.2 billion drams (about $2.8 million) for sports, which goes to the National Committee of Physical Education and Sports – the body that oversees the various sports federations and determines which programs should get government money.

Money is also donated by various businessmen who are interested in sports, such as Tsarukian himself and president of the Wrestling Federation Samvel Alexanian (both are members of Parliament).

The monthly salary of an ordinary coach in Armenia is equal to 23,000 drams (about $60). Those who have experience and have produced champions get about 50,000 drams (about $130).

During the last year, 16 sports schools have been rebuilt and furnished with new equipment in Yerevan and in the regions for a total cost of 857 million drams ($1.9 million). The rebuilding of the regional schools was financed by the Armenian government. The Lincy Foundation rebuilt the Yerevan schools.

The sports academies are set up to combine traditional lessons with added emphasis on sports. Students of normal school age, who have shown exceptional abilities in various sports are selected for the specialized academies.

Winter sports infrastructure was significantly improved in the resort town of Tsaghkadzor, where a new ski lift is the first visible structure in what will eventually be a $9.3 million investment into the sports town.

A well-equipped cycling center that is unique in the region opened in Yerevan in October 2005 and is expected to train good cyclists.

Rector of the Yerevan State Institute of Physical Culture Vahram Arakelian says that every year their institute admits about 2,000 students. The departments of boxing, wrestling and weightlifting have the most students.

“Many highly qualified coaches from Soviet schools have died, others have left the country. We still don’t have good coaches because of these difficult years,” says Arakelian, hoping that Armenia will produce Olympic champions in 2016, because by that time “the work of new coaches and their influence on their trainees will be seen.”

And Alexanian is more optimistic about the next summer Olympics.

“We have a silver medalist in the European championship in shooting, Norair Bakhtamian, who has already qualified for the Beijing Olympics. We have our first-ever judo-ist, Armen Nazarian, winning medals in Europe. That’s why I see a prospect for medals in 2008,” he said.