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Azerbaijan: Olympic Dreams Fuel Construction Boom, But Public Loses

By Maarif Akbarli The Masalli sports complex (RFE/RL) MASALLI, Azerbaijan -- Entering the Masalli sports facility on an ordinary afternoon, one would expect to hear the sound of exercise emanating from every room -- a volleyball game in progress, laps being swum, or a vigorous match under way on the handball court.

Instead, the complex in Masalli, about 250 kilometers south of Baku, is strangely quiet. In fact, throughout the echoing building, only a single person can be found taking advantage of the facilities.

Emin Aliyev, practicing bench presses in the weight room, offers one suggestion for the empty rooms, saying that membership at the Masalli complex costs 25 manats a month -- a small fortune in a country where the average wage is just 240 manats ($290).

Another inconvenience is the fact that the new facility, which cost an estimated 17 million manats ($20 million) to build, is located several kilometers from the center of Masalli, and beyond the reach of existing bus lines.

Asked how he travels to the sports center, Aliyev shrugs. "Sometimes I use a taxi," he said. "But I don't live too far away, so sometimes I just jog."

Thinking Big

The Masalli complex is one of 13 new sporting complexes that have been built to bolster Baku's 2016 Olympic bid. Twenty-three other buildings are currently under construction.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has already shown an appetite for architectural grandeur, using his country's massive energy profits to bankroll a series of ambitious theaters and business-center designs.

Beating out six rival cities -- Madrid, Prague, Rio de Janeiro, Chicago, Tokyo, and Doha, Qatar -- for the 2016 Olympics would be a crowning achievement for Aliyev, who was serving as chairman of Azerbaijan's Olympic Committee when he succeeded his father as head of state in 2003.

Azerbaijan's political elite has long maintained a tight grip on the country's Olympic Committee and other sporting organizations, which are seen as a rich source of potential profit and international prestige.

Aliyev’s wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, chairs the national gymnastics association. Rovnag Abdullayev, the president of the state oil company, SOCAR, heads Azerbaijan's soccer federation; Emergency Situations Minister Kamaladdin Heydarov controls the national tae kwon do association.

Unaffordable Luxury

For many Azerbaijanis, however, the president's Olympic dreams are far from universal. The country's oil riches have had little impact in towns like Masalli, where unemployment is rampant and the local soccer club, once a source of feverish local pride, was forced to move to a different town after its stadium nearly collapsed from disrepair.

Men gathered at a local tea house seemed bemused by the fuss over the Olympic bid and the behemoth sporting facilities it has spawned.

Emin Aliyev is one of the few who can afford to train at Masalli (RFE/RL)

"The people of Masalli are suffering from depression," says one. "We don't think about sports. You think we're thinking about exercise? Why can't they just build a swimming pool where our kids can go? This complex isn't free of charge. I would have to have money to be able to send my kids there. But I don't have any money, so I'm not even interested in how much it costs."

It's not only money that's keeping people out of the pool at the Masalli complex. It's also water. The swimming pool is bone dry, and has been since the building's completion; facility staff say there hasn't been enough client demand to justify filling the pool.

Also off-limits are the handball courts, which have been closed "for repairs" despite being barely a year old. A special room for chess had a large crack running across one wall. (The Masalli administration refused to allow RFE/RL to photograph either the pool or the handball facilities.)

Forgetting The Basics

Local authorities in Masalli say the construction and operation of the Olympic facility is handled exclusively at the federal level, and that its funding remains largely opaque. But the generous price of the Masalli complex's construction has angered residents like Zahid Emenov, the editor of "Southern News," a local newspaper, who argues there were better ways to spend the money.

"There are 35 districts in the Masalli region. If you divide this 17 million manats between the 35 districts, you would get about 500,000 manats per district for sporting facilities," Emenov says.

Despite Ilham Aliyev’s Olympic fixation and Azerbaijan's long tradition of nurturing star-class wrestlers and weightlifters, physical fitness has become a low priority for the nation's young people; obesity and diabetes are on the rise.

Elmira Akhundova, a legislator in the Azerbaijani parliament and a member of the Social Policy Committee representing the Masalli region, says Baku is failing to take even modest measures to ensure that all young people have access to exercise.

"Imagine, there are 40 schools in my district, and 25 or 30 of them either don't have a gym, or have gyms that are in terrible condition," she says. "I've been a deputy for three years, and when I visited these schools, I was shocked. Kids don't even have balls or nets to play football or volleyball."

For now, however, Baku is focused on October 2, 2009, when Olympic officials will announce the host of the 2016 Summer Games in Copenhagen. Chinqiz Huseynzade, the vice president of Azerbaijan's Olympic Committee, is bullish on Baku's chances.

"Yes, right now we're not ready, but by 2016 it'll be possible. Azerbaijan's economic situation and its potential will make it possible," he said.

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