May 9 - Ilham Zakiyev (pictured), Azerbaijan's most successful-ever Paralympian, has claimed that if Baku's bid to host the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics is successful it would be "an amazing boost" for disability sports in the country.
Baku are bidding against Doha, Istanbul, Madrid and Tokyo for the Games and are due to find out in Quebec City on May 23 whether they have been shortlisted.
"To bring the Paralympic Games to Baku would be fantastic for disabled athletes throughout the entire region," said judoka Zakiyev, who won gold medals in the +100kg category at the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Paralympics.
Zakiyev is already heavily involved in Baku's bid and was part of the eight-person delegation that delivered the city's bid book to the International Olympic Committee's headquarters in Lausanne in February.
"This bid represents a unique opportunity for the world to discover modern Baku, and to encourage our young people with disabilities to participate in sports and to get inspired to realise their full potential in life," said Zakiyev (pictured above second left).
Zakiyev is a former soldier who lost his sight in 1999, at the age of 19, when he was shot in the heat by an Armenian sniper in the disputed terroritory of Fizuli Rayon.
Having practiced judo since the age of 11, he resumed his career as part of his rehabilitation and is now one of the greatest judokas in Paralympic history, having also won two world and four European titles.
Currently in Azerbaijan, there is one sports facility for visually impaired athletes under construction in Baku.
The Government has also recently announced plans to establish a further two Paralympic sports centres, one in Ganja and the other in Nakhichevan.
"The Government is already building a number of facilities for Paralympic sports around the country, but I am certain that this programme would accelerate enormously if we are successful in our Bid," said Zakiyev.
"Even now, while we are still only bidding, it is already boosting the profile of Paralympic sports in Azerbaijan."
He was supported by fellow judoka, Afaq Sultanova, a world champion in 2010 and 2011 in the +57kg category.
"You can see the number of elite Azerbaijani Paralympic athletes increasing year by year," she said.
"In Beijing, there were 18 in our team, but already for London we have 22 qualifications and we are expecting to have 25 overall."
In addition to numbers, the Azerbaijani team now includes participants in a number of new sporting disciplines, including Zinyat Valiyeva, the first Azerbaijani archer to qualify for the Paralympics.
"Competing at this high level demonstrates that, despite whatever disability we may have, there is no limit to what we can achieve," said Sultanova.
"That is an incredibly important message to get out to everyone in Azerbaijan – not just relating to sport, but in every aspect of life.
"The Paralympic Games is a truly inspirational event. It teaches us all to believe in ourselves – and in our unlimited potential to achieve whatever we set out to do."
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