Sun, Jun 28, 2015 - Page 19 News List

Cuba-born boxer Collazo Sotomayor leader of Azerbaijan’s foreign legion

AP, BAKU

Collazo Sotomayor of Azerbaijan poses for a photograph with his gold medal after winning the men’s 64kg final bout at the European Games in Baku on Friday.

Photo: EPA

Collazo Sotomayor is no typical Azerbaijani.

Born and raised in Cuba, the lanky boxer controlled his final in classic Cuban style on Friday before receiving a European Games gold medal in his adopted nation, the ex-Soviet state of Azerbaijan.

Greeted shortly afterward by Azerbaijani journalists, Sotomayor communicated in Spanish through a translator. Since moving to Azerbaijan, the 2010 Cuban national champion has yet to learn the language.

“I am very satisfied to give this medal to the Azerbaijani people,” said Sotomayor, who won a unanimous decision against Italy’s Vincenzo Mangiacapre in the final.

“Azerbaijani people support me very much at every competition here... All the people in Azerbaijan know me very well,” he added.

Sotomayor — the nephew of Cuba’s high jump world record holder Javier Sotomayor — is just one of a legion of foreign-born athletes who have helped to turn Azerbaijan into a European sporting powerhouse.

With two days remaining of its home European Games, Azerbaijan is second in the medal table, behind only its much larger neighbor Russia and ahead of storied sporting nations such as Germany, Britain and France.

Of Azerbaijan’s 18 gold medals so far, seven have been won by athletes born abroad. Few of them had any clear connection to the country before switching nationality and many do not speak the language.

As well as Sotomayor, Azerbaijan’s European Games medalists include athletes born in Russia, Ukraine, Iran and Moldova. In the athletics competition, Azerbaijan swept the longer distances as Hayle Ibrahimov, originally from Ethiopia, won three events. On the basketball court, Marshall Obrain Moses from South Carolina led the Azerbaijani team in scoring.

In a world where athletes are much freer to switch allegiance than in earlier decades, hiring talented foreigners is Azerbaijani government policy.

“Many countries use the same practice,” Azerbaijani Minister of Youth and Sports Azad Rahimov told journalists on Friday. “They invite foreign experienced athletes and that serves as an encouragement, attracts more attention to this type of sport.”

Athletes switching to Azerbaijan receive the benefit of lavish training facilities supported by the government and its oil wealth, which in turn have also nurtured a new generation of local talent in many sports.

In the case of Sotomayor, foreigners can go from being one athlete in a vast system, such as Cuban boxing, to being a national hero in their adopted nation.

Other nations have engaged in similar practices. Britain’s Olympic team has weathered numerous media debates over so-called “plastic Brits” born abroad, while Moldova now fields former taekwondo world champion Aaron Cook, who stopped representing Britain after a disagreement with federation bosses.

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