Editor’s Note: CNN’s On the Road series brings you a greater insight into countries around the world. This time we travel to Azerbaijan in the lead up to the European Games to explore the culture of sports in the country sitting on the Caspian Sea.
The hopes of the Azerbaijan nation will turn to its revered and feared wrestling team to strike gold at the inaugural European Games in Baku.
Azerbaijan is one of the leading nations in the ancient sport with Toghrul Asgarov and Sharif Sharifov winning gold medals at the 2012 London Olympics.
Traditionally, it’s been a male-dominated activity, particularly in a conservative country where female competitive sport has been frowned on in the past, but all that could be changing as young Azeri women take to the mat in increasing numbers.
Their role model is Mariya Stadnyk, who was born in neighboring Ukraine, but took up Azerbaijan citizenship in 2007.
The 27-year-old Stadnyk has won bronze and silver medals at the Beijing and London Olympics and in 2014 topped the podium at the European championships.
The diminutive Stadnyk, who fights in the freestyle 48k class, understands why she was effectively headhunted to represent Azerbaijan at major sporting events.
“In Azerbaijan, wrestling is famous for its men, women’s wrestling is not that famous because this is a Muslim country and wrestling is not popular for women,” she told CNN.
“They needed to find someone to be a female wrestler here. The Azerbaijani trainers saw me and invited me to be part of this growing discipline,” she told CNN.
Until her arrival, women’s wrestling had little of the backing given to the men and as Namiq Guliyev, the national junior coach admitted, its talent spotting came via an unusual route.
“Our first junior wrestling girls teams started in orphanages. We gave all the orphanages two wrestling mats so that they could get interested in it.
“We hired specialist coaches to coach female wrestling. And then we began importing female wrestlers from other countries.”
Stadnyk, who is mother to two young children, is grateful for the support she has received, not least to juggle the twin demands of family life and elite sports training.
She at least has an understanding partner as her husband Andriy Stadnyk won a wrestling silver medal in Beijing, representing the Ukraine.
Stadnyk wants to repay that faith and financial backing by claiming gold for her adopted country on home soil.
“It’s really important for us because the European Games are happening for the first time ever here in Baku.
“Usually sportsmen travel to compete abroad but this time we can do it here in our own city and that’s very important for me.”
If determination and will to win were the only ingredients necessary to claim a medal at an international sporting event, it is likely Stadnyk’s unheralded teammate Gozel Yutova would also claim gold.
At 27, she is the same age as Stadnyk but with the Azeri women’s wrestling program still in development phase she lacks her international experience.
Sporting a black eye as a result of a training accident, Yutova comes from wrestling stock, with her father a former member of the Azerbaijan national team.
She is adamant that prejudice against women in sport has not held her back in her sporting career.
“We are European, we are Muslim, we have some girls who are religious and who do fencing and other sports but in wrestling…well…here it’s not looked badly upon,” she told CNN.
“They have supported us and they have done everything for us. That’s why we have to make them proud.”
Also hoping to make his country proud in the future is 11-year-old Mammad Ahamadov, a two-time Azerbaijan champion in his age group and desperate to follow the likes of Asgarov and Sharifov in claiming gold medals.
“I would like to become Olympic champion and, of course, European and World champion,” he told CNN.
But even at his tender age, he knows that dedication is required in an unforgiving sport in which there is no way to hide.
“I practice six days a week, Sunday is my only rest day,” he said.
Maybe in the future he will share Olympic glory with his female counterparts?
“I have good friends who are in the women’s team,” he said.
“Women’s wrestling is growing and I wish them all the best,” added the youngster.
Male or female, they will be following in a proud tradition with wrestling acknowledged as Azerbaijan’s national sport.
“Wrestling is passed down from our ancestors,” said Yutova. “There are a lot of people supporting me that’s why I don’t want to disappoint them.”