Bound for Baku: Azerbaijan hosts first Artistic World Cup of 2016
To more efficiently prepare for their "home" Olympic Games this summer, Brazilians Flavia Saraiva and Daniele Hypolito have traveled halfway around the world.
The AGF Trophy, the first FIG World Challenge Cup of 2016 and first World Cup event in Artistic Gymnastics in the Olympic year, begins Friday. The battleground this weekend is Baku (AZE), the ambitious Azeri capital eager to build a reputation as a Gymnastics hub, said in statement of International Federation of Gymnastics (FIG).
For Saraiva and Hypolito, both of whom train with the Brazilian women's team under legendary Russian coach Alexander Alexandrov, this World Cup event will set the tone for 2016.
But it's not just the Brazilians who will be testing the waters in Baku this weekend. With the Aquece Rio Olympic Test Event -- the final chance for gymnasts to earn a spot to compete at the Games -- and Olympics themselves getting closer by the day, every competition is a chance to polish routines. That applies to 40-year-old Oksana Chusovitina (UZB), who is likely to compete at the Test Event with an eye on qualifying to her seventh Olympic Games as an individual, and for 2015 World Floor champion Kenzo Shirai and World Pommel Horse bronze medallist Kazuma Kaya (JPN), both likely to be part of the already qualified Japanese Olympic team. For all, Baku represents a valuable opportunity.
The home team itself will be clamoring for medals. Bolstered by the hosting last summer's European Games in their own National Gymnastics Arena, the six-strong Azerbaijan team for the event includes 2015 World Parallel Bars bronze medallist Oleg Stepko and Petro Pakhnyuk, as well as former Russian World team members Kristina Pravdina and Yulia Inshina. They too carry high hopes for success.
"I think I will be ready for the tournament, if not in my best, but in the form close to it," Stepko told the Azerbaijan press earlier this month. Still, the gymnasts realise that while Baku begins the Olympic year, the endgame is really in Rio.
"The season's first event is very important for us as we host it at home. Afterwards, we will prepare for the Olympics step by step," Pakhnyuk added.