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Tunis, Day 1 & 2: Azerbaijan weightlifter claims continental championships victory – in Africa

A weightlifter from Europe, who lost an Olympic qualifying opportunity when an Armenian burned the Azerbaijan flag, finished first in the African Championships today in Tunis (TUN).

Isa Rustamov, 23, made a career-best effort to finish ahead of eight African competitors in the men’s 67kg category with a total that would have earned him a bronze medal at the European Championships last month.

But Rustamov did not lift in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, because the Azerbaijan team withdrew before a lift was made after the controversial flag-burning incident at the Opening Ceremony. After that, Azerbaijan’s government ordered the weightlifting team to fly home.

Because continental championships are qualifiers for Paris 2024, Azerbaijan had lost a chance to improve their rankings, so the IWF arranged for the same athletes entered in Yerevan to compete instead in Tunis.

An Azerbaijan team official said Rustamov’s preparations had been targeted for April, but the extra weeks of training had not adversely affected him.

But for a jury overturn of his final attempt, Rustamov would have had a six-from-six total of 306kg, enough for a silver medal in the European competition.

The no-lift decision left him on 138-164-302, better than the African winner by 22kg.

No medals are awarded to Azerbaijan’s “guest athletes” in Tunis, and the gold went to Ayoub Salem from Tunisia on 126-154-280.

Akram Chekhchoukh from Algeria was second and another Tunisian, Mouhamed Ben Hadj, third with totals of 279kg and 273kg.

There was an impressive result for Nigeria earlier in the women’s 59kg.

Despite missing her first snatch and first clean and jerk, Commonwealth Games 59kg winner Rafiatu Lawal came out top with a 217kg total – enough to put her joint tenth in the Paris 2024 rankings.

Lawal is the only African lifter from anywhere other than Egypt to feature in the top 10 in any men’s or women’s weight category.

She broke continental records in snatch and total to make 95-122-217, finishing ahead of her team-mate Adijat Olarinoye, who won Commonwealth Games gold at 55kg last year. Olarinoye made 93-118-211.

Three of the sessions featured only two lifters, the women’s 45kg and 55kg and men’s 55kg.

The champions in those classes were respectively Nadia Katbi from Algeria on 51-65-116, Eya Aquadi from Tunisia on 72-93-165, and Davis Niyoyita from Uganda on 95-120-215.

Of the three athletes competing in the women’s 49kg category, Maha Fejraslam from Morocco came out top on 64-79-143.

Tunisia had a 1-2 finish in a more competitive women’s 64kg, where Chaima Rhamouni made 90-108-198 ahead of Jawaher Gesmi on 86-107-193. Both women had chances to go beyond 200kg but missed their final two clean and jerks.

Ruby Malvina from the Seychelles was third on 80-107-187.

Tunisia also took the men’s 61kg, in which Amine Bouhijbha finished 85kg clear of his nearest challenger on 117-140-257.

By Brian Oliver, Inside the Games