For the last week Rustam Orujov and Orkhan Safarov have been touring the UK delivering technical seminars and learning about British systems as part of a commitment to judo education and their own development. Both are now retired from competition and are looking forward to staying firmly connected to their judo roots, both at home in Azerbaijan and further afield. Rustam Orujov already holds a position on the EJU Sport Commission giving him an excellent view of judo at the continental level from cadets to seniors. He wishes to continue learning and experiencing judo in new ways.

The last stop on the British Judo Association tour was the home of the national team in Walsall, England. A full day of teaching was undertaken by the two champions, ne-waza being the first focus and tachi-waza taking over in the afternoon. Tiny details can often make the difference between winning and losing and it was a series of basic and not-so-basic techniques and ideas which the pair expanded beautifully with a host of tiny details.

Orkhan Safarov (AZE) and Rustam Orujov (AZE) on the mat at the British NTC. Photo courtesy of Eric Ham.

British Judo’s Performance Director, Nigel Donohue, said, “When we get these guys over to the UK it’s a brilliant opportunity for our team to get exposure not just to their technique but also their characters and the feeling they bring to the mats; there is so much more learning than just the technical aspect. It’s been useful to talk with them about their pathway and their approach. Their background plays a part in their reasons for staying in the sport for so long and in their development through the years.

I remember seeing Neil Adams fight in Moscow at the Games and then seeing him at our local leisure centre delivering a masterclass, inspiring a new generation. I remember that day as clear as yesterday; it had a big impact on me so I want our programme to deliver that. We enjoyed having Shohei Ono on the mat with us in January and have also been working with Yoko Tanabe and Giorgi Vazagashvili for the last few years, ensuring all our national team athletes have opportunities to connect with international judoka who have competed at the highest level. Communication around the world is now so much easier than it has ever been and this enables almost unlimited exchange, discussion and learning.”

Nigel Donohue with Safarov, Orujov, Paralympic champion Christopher Skelley (GBR) and members of the British Judo Association coaching team. Photo courtesy of Eric Ham.

Safarov and Orujov’s travel is part of a wider project and although they are the first, they will not be the last of Azerbaijan’s judo heroes to seek education post-competition. Rustam Orujov said, “This is all via the federation; our federation helps us through their innovative athlete transition development programme. We are the first two to be on the programme.

Mike Callan (IJF Scientific Committee) said, “Previously, the federation hadn’t supported former athletes specifically and so leadership and other key positions weren’t developed towards former athletes. Now the AJF is investing so that judoka can take leadership roles in the future. Orkhan Safarov and Rustam Orujov can now reinvest all those years of experience and knowledge, as the very special individuals that they are, in a new kind of future for the next generations of Azeri judoka.”

Safarov, a Masters and European champion and double Olympian, said that it is about his own personal goals as well as the wider education aspect, “I like to teach my judo to children. It is great to see them smiling in their training, learning new techniques from judoka they have known as heroes. Showing the techniques that we learned and trained for many years and seeing new generations grasping these ideas is very satisfying."

Orkhan Safarov (AZE). Photo courtesy of Eric Ham.

"It’s funny because when I finished competing I realised that I had always just repeated my techniques and hadn’t thought too much about how I did my judo. Once retired, I started to watch my judo and re-learn my own techniques. Step by step, I began to break down what I did and only then could I teach what I did. For me it’s good because I’ve never taught before and now I understand so much more. Sometimes I feel I can help the next judoka understand something new and different. What I did in competition used to be normal to me but now it seems somehow extraordinary.”

Rustam Orujov, Olympic and double world medallist, said, “I want to share my experience with other athletes. When I was young I was honoured to have one of the famous judoka of the time teach me. Now I want to give this joy to others.

We will go back to Baku, to the clubs, having learned how the UK systems and organisation work. We were recently in Japan too, with a similar programme of education. We want to take all we learn to help to strengthen judo in Azerbaijan. The broader our education, the more we can contribute to judo development at home.”

Photo courtesy of Eric Ham.

In recent years there have been many well publicised projects to grow the sport of judo in Azerbaijan, from the building of their new, state-of-the-art national training centre to outreach programmes such as ‘White Suit Girls,’ but within each area of development there has been a serious and concerted effort to accelerate the inclusion of women in judo. The Azeri champions spoke about this area of focus for their federation.

Rustam added, “In Azerbaijan, lightweight women are doing very well but we must have a full mixed team for the Los Angeles Olympic Mixed Team event in 2028 and so we are working on the heavier weights to ensure we can fill that quota and develop a fuller team. The team event in LA will be a great motivator for women in Azerbaijan to get involved. We really need the heavyweights to come through and so now there will be, in the coming months, a scouting system. Maybe we have some strong athletes already wrestling or doing other sports and we want to help them transition into judo to strengthen our team. Once we can highlight role models in these categories, it will produce a chain reaction and sustain development for our whole team and not just the lighter weight women.”

Rustam and Orkhan, having both learned and taught in Great Britain, illustrating perfectly the idea of mutual aid, are ready for the next stage of their judo careers. We look forward to seeing the fruit of their labour and wish them well in all that comes next.

Photo courtesy of Eric Ham.
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