Mariana Vasileva is Azerbaijan’s Deputy Minister for Youth and Sport but her background is neither in judo nor in Azerbaijan. A Bulgarian gymnast but a lover of sport with a passion for development, her life took some unexpected turns, much to the benefit of Azerbaijan and all sports in the country.
Azerbaijan's Deputy Minister for Youth and Sport, Mrs Mariana Vasileva, at the 2023 Baku Grand Slam.

“I was a coach with the Bulgarian national gymnastics team and in 2007 we came to Azerbaijan and won a silver medal. The Azeri team then came to work with me on camps in Bulgaria and in 2008 their team went to the finals of the Olympic Games.

After that Azerbaijan asked me to come to their country and together with my husband we decided to make the move as a family. In October 2008 we moved the whole family and re-settled. It took me a long time to adjust.

In 2009 Baku hosted the European Gymnastics Championships and I decided to stay with them until that time and then go home to Bulgaria but the team unexpectedly won silver and having done the same with Bulgaria in 2007, it was a big affirmation."

Baku Grand Slam opening ceremony.

"We didn’t qualify for the London Olympic Games though and so I wanted that to be the time I returned home. I called my mum and she told me she didn’t raise me to run away from a lack of success. She said I should not come home until I have become a big success in Azerbaijan and then I can choose with freedom in my heart.

Finally in 2020 we qualified both teams and individuals for the Olympic Games in Tokyo and all with home grown athletes. My mum passed away before the Games but she knew we qualified and she was proud.

Now I feel that this country is my home. My children speak 4 languages including Azeri and Bulgarian.

The First Vice President of Azerbaijan is Mehriban Aliyeva and I am a deputy minister. We are not at all alone as women in government or in leading roles in Azerbaijan. There may be a perception from outside that women can’t achieve in Azerbaijan, as a former Soviet country and of course a Muslim country but it isn’t the case at all."

The Azeri and IJF anthems being played at the Baku Grand Slam opening ceremony.

"I have had Azerbaijan nationality for some time now and this is one prerequisite to work in the government. It’s actually an advantage to have come from another country. I’ve seen other systems and ways to work and this allows us to discuss broad ideas. I have shown that it’s possible to build a system here from the ground up. Now rhythmic gymnastics is present in 32 regions plus the capital, Baku.

I was appointed to this role as Deputy Minister for Youth and Sport and it was a big surprise to be invited. I felt very comfortable straight away, even though it’s a big challenge.”

Mariana Vasileva is now involved with so many sports in Azerbaijan and is always impressed by what she finds at judo events. She sees the progress the women’s team is making too and can rest assured that she has played a big part in the development of sport in the country.

Mrs Vasileva gave a warm and open speech at the Baku Grand Slam 2023 opening ceremony and she continues to have great communication with the national federation.

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