Azerbaijan won their very first Olympic medal in their very first Olympic Games, in wrestling, courtesy of a freestyle flyweight silver for Namig Abdullayev. Since then, four of the country's six gold medals have come in the sport, including one for Abdullayev himself at Sydney 2000. And at the recent European Championships, held in the Finnish town of Vantaa from April 1-6, Azerbaijan won three gold medals and finished second on the medals table behind Russia.
Wrestling is considered one of the keys to Baku and Azerbaijan embracing the 2015 European Games. With medals-action beginning on June 13, so one day after the Opening Ceremony, it is the most likely sport in which an early Azerbaijani medal will be won, a sure-fast way of ensuring home support. Held in the City Cluster in the newly refurbished Heydar Aliyev Arena, wrestling will also be at the geographical centre of the Games, and this is yet another reason why it should engage the local population. As if this is not enough, an extra layer of tension will be added because the competition will also incorporate the 2015 Senior European Wrestling Championships, already one of the most prestigious and high-quality events on the calendar.
Modern Olympic wrestling consists of two forms: Greco-Roman and freestyle. While both have the same objective of dispatching the opponent onto the mat on their back to win a point, the difference is that, in Greco-Roman, participants can only use their arms and trunk to attack and immobilise their adversary, while in freestyle participants can also use their legs.
Fights take place on an octagonal mat, with each bout lasting for two periods of three minutes with a 30-second break. The winner is declared by the addition of points accrued in both periods, with bouts declared over automatically if one wrestler takes an eight point lead in Greco-Roman, or a 10 point lead in freestyle.
The wrestling programme for Baku 2015 is the same format that will be used for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, based on the new weight categories introduced by the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) last December. The principal difference from the previous format is the greater number of events for women, with six events now taking place in all three disciplines of men and women's freestyle and men's Greco Roman. Women remain yet to compete in Greco Roman events.
The six men's freestyle divisions range from 57kg to 125kg, while women's freestyle range from 48kg to 75kg and Greco Roman from 59kg to a whopping 130kg.
But as well as the first multi-sport test of the new format, Baku 2015 has already wielded extra significance for the sport due to the fact wrestling's inclusion in the Games was a key milestone in the campaign to return to the Olympic programme last year. The sport was controversially dropped from the list of Olympic sports in February 2013 only to be returned at the International Olympic Committee Session in Buenos Aires last September, where the sport won a first-round majority in a three-way battle with squash and baseball/softball.
An agreement, signed in March 2013, to add wrestling to the Baku 2015 programme was a means to illustrate the sport's flexibility and ability to adapt to change. The European Games is thus seen as a critical stepping stone for revitalising the sport.
Unlike most other sports the qualification process is already well underway, with the aforementioned European Championships in Vantaa serving as the main qualification event at which quota places for countries were earned. The distribution of the 400 wrestling places across all 18 weight categories will be communicated to athletes on Friday (May 30).
With Turkey, Hungary, Ukraine and Georgia all figuring highly on the medals table in Finland, expect lots of Eastern European success in Baku. But with 25 countries winning medals, and many more competitive, expect also a fiercely fought event with plenty of unheralded figures grappling their way to success.
But most of all expect the blue, red and green of Azerbaijan to figure prominently on the podium in a competition set to illustrate all the sporting credentials of the host nation. More Baku 2015 sports