Ilham Zakiyev

Olympic Person of the Month May 2023

Ilham Zakiyev is an Azerbaijani Paralympic Judoka who has won countless championships, including two Paralympic Games and seven European championships. His remarkable history as a Paralympic athlete speaks for itself. Not only is he a world-renowned athlete, but he is also an Honored Sports of Azerbaijan Master and holds the impressive 6th dan black belt. Zakiyev’s incredible achievements are made even more remarkable by the fact that he is a disabled veteran of the Karabakh war. Introducing the Olympic Person of the Month, we take a closer look at Ilham’s journey to success and the challenges he has overcome to become one of the most decorated Paralympic judokas of all time.

Zakiyev was born in Sumgait, Azerbaijan, in 1980. From an early age, he developed a passion for sports because of his older brother’s interest in wrestling. Under the guidance of the Honored Coach of Azerbaijan, Ahmaddin Rajabli, he started practicing judo in 1995. In a fleeting period of time, he achieved success winning the Azerbaijan youth championship in judo and becoming the republican champion among juniors in sambo. In June 1998, he won the Azerbaijan Cup, and that victory qualified him for the Youth Olympics in Moscow. However, he could not go to the Olympics in Moscow as he was called to active military service exactly one month later and started serving in the Azerbaijan Armed Forces on July 2nd, 1998.

In February 1999, he was shot by a sniper’s bullet while performing a combat mission. The bullet entered through his right side and exited through his left side. Tragically, he was in a coma for five days and doctors said there would not be hope. Despite this, the doctors noted that “His heart is still fighting because he’s an athlete.”

Regardless of the desperate medical assessment, on the fifth day Ilham woke up in the district hospital hearing his mother’s voice. But when he opened his eyes, he saw nothing. He realised, he had lost his sight at the age of only 19. In such a situation, his return to competitive sport could only be dreamed of. Nevertheless, Ilham’s story could not stop him from searching for a way back to his relentless passion for sports. “I feel what you see. But you do not see what I feel” he said.

After returning his training in November 2002, Zakiyev made his comeback to Tatami in August 2003 for the second World Championships for Visually Impaired Athletes held in Quebec, Canada. In a highly intense match, he faced off against Cuban world champion Rafael Torres Pompe and, despite putting up a draw, he ultimately lost by points. Nevertheless, Zakiyev managed to secure a consolation bronze medal, which qualified him for the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. He then went on to win the Paralympic Games in Athens in 2004 and the Paralympic Games in Beijing in 2008. Zakiyev also attained a silver medal at the Paralympic Judoka World Cup in Heidelberg, Germany, in 2012, and the same year a bronze medal at the Paralympic Games in London. Year later, he achieved the sixth dan black belt.

Zakiyev’s astonishing achievements led to him being awarded second place among sports laureates of 2015 “Sportsman of the Year” by the Azerbaijan Sports Journalists Association (AIJA). In the 2015 European Games he lit the torch at the opening ceremony and carried the flag of Azerbaijan as the captain of the national team at the 17th Summer Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Ilham Zakiyev’s life serves as an inspiration for young athletes in Azerbaijan, displaying the values of perseverance and determination. This month, he is celebrated as the Olympic Person of the Month, highlighting his exceptional career and unwavering spirit in the face of adversity.

Go back to all Olympic Person of the Month portraits.