Sport has an illustrious history in Azerbaijan, with traditional sports and games dating back for centuries. A variety of traditional sports are played at a national level and local level, with traditional games including: topaldiqach (which literally means “ball kidnapping”), surpapaq (a game played on horseback), yayliqqachirtdi (which means "headscarf kidnapping"), chovkan (a variety of polo), chilling-aghach, gulash (wrestling), nard (backgammon) and Seven Beatiful being amongst the most popular.
In addition to its traditional sports, there are a number of sports that are incredibly well developed in Azerbaijan. Wrestling, boxing, equestrian sports, basketball, karate, volleyball, swimming, power lifting, football and chess are all played at an international level.
Azerbaijani athletes competed in nine Olympic Games between 1952 and 1992 as part of the USSR team, winning 10 gold, 11 silver and seven bronze medals.
In 1992, five Azerbaijani athletes competed at the Barcelona Olympic Games, as part of the Unified Team (the team was comprised of fifteen former Soviet Republics and was referred to as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) team. Two Azerbaijani athletes won gold medals as part of the Unified Team.
Azerbaijan formed its National Olympic Committee (NOC) in January 1992, and became a member of the European Olympic Committee in November 1992. It was officially recognised by the International Olympic Committee in September 1993. In 1996, Azerbaijan competed independently as a national team for the first time at the Atlanta Olympic Games. The team won one gold medal and was placed in 61st position out of 197 countries competing that year. Azerbaijan has competed, and won medals, at every summer Olympics since 1996.
The ‘famous Russian’ linesman who was instrumental in awarding the disputed goal to England in the 1966 World Cup Final, Tofiq Bahramov, was Azerbaijani. Bahramov was a well-known football referee in Azerbaijan; the national football stadium was named after him in 2006.
Since independence Azerbaijani sportsmen have been taking a much more active part in international sports competitions. In 1995 only 165 sportsmen took part in different world and European competitions, but in the following year this number increased to 412. In 1995 Azerbaijani sportsmen won 22 gold, 15 silver and 27 bronze medals in international competitions and 21 gold, 17 silver and 28 bronze medals in 1996. Azerbaijan was for the first time represented by an independent team in Olympic Games held in Atlanta in 1996. Namig Abdullayev, a wrestler, won a silver medal. In 1995 he became a European champion, in 1996 - a bronze prize-winner and in 1997 - a silver prize-winner of the European championship.
Achievements by women in sports in Azerbaijan are of special importance. Along with all traditional female sports, Azerbaijani women also participate in a form of sumo wrestling and excel at shooting. Zulfiyya Hasanova became a world champion in sumo wrestling in 1995 and 1996, a European champion in 1995 and a silver prize-winner of the 1997 European championship, while Zemfira Meftaheddinova has had remarkable achievements in shooting. She took first place in team competitions in the European championship in 1990. Later, in 1996, she broke the record while taking first place in the European championship.
In 1998, the European Cadet Boxing Championships were held in Yurmala, Lithuania. Sportsmen from 29 countries participated in this event and Azerbaijan was represented by a full team. Facing tough competition, the Azerbaijani sportsmen Murad Chupalayev (69 kg), Farkhad Ajalov (54 kg) and Etibar Taqiyev (60 kg) won gold, silver and bronze medals, respectively.
Azerbaijan competed at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Azerbaijani sportsmen won two gold and one bronze medal. Zemfira Meftahaddinova and Namig Abdullayev both won gold medals in skeet shooting and in freestyle wrestling respectively. The young athlete Vugar Alakbarov won a bronze medal in boxing. In addition, eight other athletes were awarded honorary diplomas. Rasul Salimov and Ruslan Khairov took the fifth, Islam Dakhchiyev took the sixth, Elchin Ismaylov, Zulfiya Huseynova, Natig Eyvazov, and Shamil Afandiyev took the seventh, and Elkan Suleymanov took the eighth place.
Chess has a rich heritage in Azerbaijan. It was referenced in the works of great Azerbaijani writers such as Khaqani, Nizami, Fuzuli and Akhundov, but really developed with the first chess clubs of the late 19th, early 20th century. The first major tournament in Azerbaijan took place in 1922 and was won by the Makagonov brothers. Sports clubs such as Neftchi, Spartak, Nauka, Energiya, Medik and Iskra further grew the sport’s popularity in Soviet times. It was during this period too that Gary Kasparov, the chess grandmaster many consider the greatest player of all time, grew up and honed his skills in Baku.
This heritage is reflected by the Soviet Union’s total dominance of Chess Olympiads throughout the 20th century during which time the USSR won the competition an incredible 18 times, far outstripping the next best of six victories by the USA, and now Russia.
Great achievements in chess were reached by Aynur Sofiyeva, Firuza Velikhanli and Ilaha Gadimova, who all achieved impressive results. In 1991, 12-year-old Ilaha Gadimova became a champion among 16-year-old chess-players. In 1992 she became a silver prize-winner of the European championship among juniors, in 1993 - a European champion among students, in 1994 - a European champion among 20-year-old chess-players and in 1996 she took third place in the International Students Competition.
In recent years, Azerbaijani chess-players Teymur Radjabov, Shahriyar Mammadyarov and Vugar Hashimov were able to become the world's leading chess-players. At the end of 2007, selected team had returned home with the bronze medals for the first time at the European Championship qualifying team held in Greek island of Crete. In the list of FIDE chess Azerbaijani chess-players Teymur Radjabov, Shahriyar Mammadyarov and Vugar Hashimov were ranked among worlds 20 most powerful chess players.
Chess remains extremely popular in Azerbaijan today. Chess schools operate throughout the country and a special government programme was launched to grow the sport between 2009 and 2014. Azerbaijan has also hosted many international chess tournaments and competitions and became a European Team Chess Championship winner in 2009.
The 42nd Chess Olympiad started in Baku on September 2, 2016 and has been the biggest sporting event ever held in Azerbaijan. This competition brought together 181 teams in the open section and 142 teams in the women’s section representing a total of 175 countries. This is a record figure in the history of all Olympiads. Azerbaijan was represented in the Olympiad by three men’s and three women’s teams.
The next stop for the Chess Olympiad will be the Georgian Black Sea city of Batumi in 2018 and then Russia’s Khanty-Mansiysk in 2020. For Baku, the Islamic Solidarity Games await in the summer of 2017.
Football is the most popular sport in Azerbaijan. Azeri football is organized by the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan, or AFFA, which runs the national, professional football league, the AFFA Supreme League, and the Azerbaijani national football team.
The most successful Azerbaijani football clubs are Neftchi Baku, Baku, Inter Baku, Qarabağ, Gabala and Khazar Lankaran. In 2012, Neftchi Baku became the first Azerbaijani team to advance to the group stage of a European competition, beating APOEL of Cyprus 4-2 on aggregate in the play-off round of the 2012-2013 UEFA Europa League.
The 1960s are considered the Golden Age for Azerbaijani football, as they produced great players like Anatoliy Banishevskiy, Alakbar Mammadov and football referee Tofiq Bahramov, who is most famous for being a linesman who helped to award a goal for England in the 1966 World Cup Final between England and West Germany.
The top football teams in Azerbaijan are FK Baku, PFC Neftchi Baku, FK Karabakh and Khazar Lankaran. On March 19, 2010, Azerbaijan won the bid to host the 2012 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup.
Azerbaijan is one of the leading volleyball countries in the world and its Azerbaijan Women's Volleyball Super League is one of strongest women leagues in world. Its women national team placed fourth at the 2005 European Championship. Over the last years, clubs like Rabita Baku and Azerrail Baku achieved great success at European cups. Leading Azerbaijani volleyball players are Valeriya Korotenko, Oksana Parkhomenko, Inessa Korkmaz, Natalya Mammadova and Alla Hasanova.
Wrestling remains a historically important sport of Azerbaijan and often even referred to as its national sport. Both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, particularly freestyle, are popular in Azerbaijan.
With a history of great wrestlers, such as Namig Abdullayev, Farid Mansurov, Rovshan Bayramov, and Mariya Stadnik, Azerbaijan is considered among the elite nations in this sport. Azerbaijan Wrestling Federation was for the first time established in 1959 as part of the USSR Wrestling Federation. After gaining independence the Azerbaijan Wrestling Federation was established in 1993, and officially admitted to the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles at FILA Headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland in the same year.
Judo is quite popular in Azerbaijan among both men and women. Azerbaijan Judo Federation was established in 1972. Since 1993, Azerbaijani fighters were among the winners at Junior European Judo Championships. In 2000, national team won five medals and took the first place in the team standings at European Judo Championships held in Romania.
A few glorious pages in the history of the Azerbaijani judo were also written in 2002. Elchin Ismayilov claimed the silver medal at European Judo Championships held in Slovenia. Moreover, judo fighters won all the three medals of merit at European championship in Hungary. The turning point in the history of Azerbaijan judo sport was Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Azerbaijan was presented by six judoists, among which was the silver medalist of the 2007 World Championship Elnur Mammadli (73 kg), who won the title of Olympic champion in Beijing.
Azerbaijani judo fighter Elkhan Mammadov (100kg) has won gold medal in the world championship in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2013.
The World Judo Championships 2018 among adults will be held in Baku for the first time.
Azerbaijan competed at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, United Kingdom, from 27 July to 12 August 2012. Azerbaijan made its fifth consecutive appearance at the Olympics in the post-Soviet era. The National Olympic Committee of the Azerbaijani Republic sent the nation's largest delegation to the Games. A total of 53 athletes, 39 men and 14 women, competed in 15 sports. There was only a single competitor in road cycling, equestrian show jumping, fencing, and shooting. The Azerbaijani athletes also included their only defending champion, judoka Elnur Mammadli, who became the nation's flag bearer at the opening ceremony.
Azerbaijan left London with a total of 10 medals (2 gold, 2 silver, and 6 bronze), which doubled the nation's overall medal count at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. This was also the nation's most successful Olympics, winning the largest number of medals received at a single games. More than half of these medals were awarded in wrestling, including gold medals won by Toghrul Asgarov and Sharif Sharifov from the men's freestyle events.
Azerbaijan competed at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 5 to 21 August 2016. This was its sixth consecutive appearance at the Summer Olympics in the post-Soviet era.
The National Olympic Committee of the Azerbaijani Republic fielded a team of 56 athletes, 42 men and 14 women, across 18 sports at the Games, four of which marked their Olympic debut (archery, slalom canoeing, track cycling, and triathlon). It was the nation's largest ever delegation sent to the Olympics in its independent history, beating the record of 53 athletes who attended the London Games four years earlier.
Azerbaijan left Rio de Janeiro with a total of 18 medals (1 gold, 7 silver, and 10 bronze), signifying the nation's most successful Olympic outcome in its independent history. Nine of these medals were distributed to the Azerbaijani team in wrestling, three in taekwondo for the first time, and two each in boxing, sprint canoeing, and judo.
Azerbaijan’s paralympic athletes first competed at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, USA, where Azerbaijan was also first represented as an independent state. When talking about Azerbaijani paralympians, the name of Ilham Zakiyev always springs to mind. This is because the 36-year-old judoka, competing in the heavyweight (+100 kg) category, is a double Olympic champion, gold-medalist at the Baku 2015 inaugural European Games, double world champion and six-time European champion. Ilham Zakiyev has twice been awarded the Order of Honour (in 2008 and 2015) by the President of Azerbaijan for success in sport and winning gold at the 1st European Games. He has also won the Progress medal and in 2009 received the title of Honoured Master of Sports. On 10 May 2012, he was awarded the Heydar Aliyev Foundation’s international Golden Chinar award.
Baku 2015 European Games took place in Baku, Azerbaijan from 12 to 28 June 2015 and featured almost 6,000 athletes from 50 countries competing in 20 sports in 18 venues. They were the inaugural edition of the European Games, an international multi-sport event for athletes representing the National Olympic Committees (NOCs) of the European Olympic Committees. Host Azerbaijan rose to the occasion, winning an impressive 56 medals, 21 of them gold, to finish second in the medal table. Azerbaijan’s success came in traditional areas, such as wrestling, karate and boxing but its athletes also medalled in sports less associated with the host nation, including Triathlon, Canoe Sprint and Fencing.
Azerbaijani gymnasts demonstrated brilliant performances during the first European Games held in Baku this June, grabbing seven medals from the inaugural Games. Thanks to First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, who heads the National Gymnastics Federation since 2002, gymnastics in Azerbaijan has entered a new stage in its development. Organizational skills of the First Lady and her credibility played a crucial role in the decision in holding the World Cup in rhythmic gymnastics in 2003 and 2004, as well as the World Cup in 2005 in Azerbaijan.
Designed to host all gymnastics disciplines, the iconic 9,000-seat National Gymnastics Arena opened in 2014, is now able to host gymnasts' training for international tournaments. The arena will host the World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships in 2019.
Rapid development process covers sport and physical training and the achievements gained in this area are being increased year-by-year. During independence period there were built and submitted into use 39 Olympic sport complexes in cities and regions of the country. In Khazar, Absheron, Aghcabadi, Neftchala, Goranboy, Tartar, Yardimli regions and Yevlakh city the activities on building of sport complexes, reconstruction of Lenkoran Olympic Sport Complex are continued. Number of the sport facilities at the beginning of 2016 reached to 11.0 thousand and number of persons engaging in sport and physical culture is increasing regularly. That is the reason of success of our sportsmen increases year by year in the international arena and Azerbaijan is now known as a sport country in the world.
Azerbaijan hosts many international competitions and above all the modern sport infrastructure established in the country enables conduction of these competitions in other regions of the Republic along with the capital Baku. Each year the world and continental championships on rhythmic gymnastics, taekwondo, wrestling, boxing, karate, football and other sports, the Olympic Games licensed tournaments are held in country. Generally, more than 500 international competitions were held in Azerbaijan during last 10 years; I European Games, ‘Formula 1 race”, Chess Olympiad take peculiar place in the world sport history by its grandiosity.