Paris 2024: Ilham Zakiyev hopes training regime will aid quest for third gold

Azerbaijan’s Para judo legend on his preparations for a sixth Paralympics 18 Apr 2024
male judoka Ilham Zakiyev
Ilham Zakiyev is a four-time Paralympic medallist and two-time champion
ⒸGetty Images
By Amp Media | For the IPC

Pray. Eat. Train. Sleep. Repeat. This is the routine of a champion with a third Paralympic gold medal on his mind. 

Ilham Zakiyev is one of the founding fathers of the Azerbaijan Para judo team and he is determined to add to the two titles he won at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games and Beijing 2008. 

Ilham Zakiyev won his first Paralympic gold medal at Athens 2004. @IBSA Judo/IJF

At London 2012 he took bronze and, after missing out at Rio 2016, finished third at Tokyo 2020 in what was an Azeri success story at the Games – 14 gold medals including six from judo. 

More than 28 years since a sniper’s bullet robbed the former soldier of his eyesight and Zakiyev retains the same enthusiasm as he continues his way on the road to Paris 2024.  

He is also a seventh dan black belt and three-time world champion. 

Zakiyev won the first of two Paralympic bronze medals at London 2012 © Getty Images

For the love of judo 

When pushed to name one thing he does not like about the sport, the answer is short and sweet. 

⁠“I love the whole of judo. I love this sport with all its advantages and disadvantages,” Zakiyev said. 

He was a highly talented able-bodied judoka as a youngster, starting from the age of 11. That changed as an 18-year-old during the war against Armenia, when a bullet entered the left side of his head and out through his right temple. 

Since then, he has done it all – and admits he taps into his mighty CV and his experience to help with his training regime. 

Three decades of experience 

“I’m in professional sport about 30 years and more than 20 years of it in Paralympic sports. So, yes, I use my experience during my trainings.” 

The Azeri judoka is a five-time Paralympian © Getty Images

A typical day sees him rise early to pray, then he has breakfast, does some morning exercises before resting for an hour and a half. By 10am he heads off to a dojo or gym and trains there for two hours. 

“Then I have lunch. After that I do my personal business. In the evenings I spend my time with family or friends.” 

Zakiyev has one geographical advantage over some of his teammates and colleagues. The Sumgait Paralympic Sports Complex, a bespoke set-up for sportsmen and women with disabilities, was built in the town by the Azeri government in 2008 to encourage Para participation. 

Sumgait so happens to be where Zakiyev was born and continues to live. 

Home sweet Sumgait 

“⁠Usually, I train at the Paralympic Complex in my home city. This complex is unique in the Caucasus,” he explains. 

“There’s no special training day for me, except training camps and trainings right before the competition. Normally, I train five days a week for one and a half to two hours.” 

“At the weekends I do not train [unless there is a training camp].  I love to spend my free time with my family or with friends.” 

Zakiyev, who is also vice president of the Azerbaijan Paralympic Committee, still travels frequently to competitions and training camp. He admits that Paris 2024 is beginning to dictate what happens to his preparations. 

Family sacrifice 

Last year he was runner-up at both the Tokyo Grand Prix and the IBSA World Games, losing to Brazil’s Wilians Araujo and going down to Ion Basoc of Moldova in the +90kg category respectively. 

Zakiyev is a reigning bronze medallist from Tokyo 2020 © Getty Images

“For the training camps I often leave home. It’s another side of our sports,” said Zakiyev.  

“Some people think that we're travelling all over the world, and they envy us. But all we can see is training hall, gyms and hotel rooms. And during these trips we see our family and talk to them via internet.” 

Sometimes the training camps abroad are at the invitation of Azerbaijan’s Olympic judo team much to the delight of the Para squad. 

Road to Paris 

As for Zakiyev, his focus is shifting to the final competitions before Paris 2024.  

“I have already started [preparing for Paris 2024]. I took part in some competitions and strengthened my place in the ranking list.” 

So physically it is looking good for Zakiyev. The veteran believes that he is also in a good place when it comes to any mental health challenges. 

“There are no mental battles. No problems with my psychology,” he said. 


Book your tickets for the Paralympic Games by visiting the Paris 2024 ticketing website.