Arayik Harutyunyan feels sport can "raise awareness of Armenia in the media and attract tourism" ©Armenia Ministry of Education, Science, Sport and Culture

Armenia has set a target of winning 25 Olympic gold medals by 2050 and is also using sport, and its biggest national stars, to achieve goals in health and tourism.

On the fifth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, a series of huge public protests that led to a new leadership in the Armenian Government in 2018, details of the wide-ranging sport strategy were outlined by Arayik Harutyunyan, one of the leading figures involved in the plans.

"Starting from the Velvet Revolution, our strategy was to invest in sport to have a healthy nation," Harutyunyan said on the final day of the European Weightlifting Championships in Yerevan.

"Through sport we can also raise awareness of Armenia in the media and attract tourism, which is growing. 

"Compared with the first three months of 2019, we have grown 30 to 40 per cent this year."

The weightlifting event, which was rated a huge success by competing teams and by the European Weightlifting Federation (EWF), was the second continental championships hosted by Armenia within a year, after boxing in 2022.

The European Youth Boxing Championships start this week in Yerevan, the European Gymnastics Championships is on the calendar for 2027 and Armenia also wants to host a global event, the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) World Championships in the final quarter of next year.

The Karen Demirchyan Sport Complex, that hosted the European Weightlifting Championships, is an asset for Armenia ©Armenia Ministry of Education, Science, Sport and Culture
The Karen Demirchyan Sport Complex, that hosted the European Weightlifting Championships, is an asset for Armenia ©Armenia Ministry of Education, Science, Sport and Culture

"In the future we would like to host as many championships as possible, it can help us to develop sports," said former Sports Minister Harutyunyan, the Prime Minister's chief of staff who headed the Organising Committee for the European Weightlifting Championships.

"We have a very impressive history of weightlifting, gymnastics, wrestling and boxing and now we want a renaissance of those sports in Armenia."

It is happening already: Armenia won European gold medals in weightlifting and wrestling over the weekend and, as Harutyunyan pointed out, many of their top performers are in the early twenties or younger, and have great potential at future Olympic Games.

"During our independence years [since the early 1990s], we have not had such championships," said Harutyunyan.

"Armenia is becoming a centre for weightlifting and boxing because we are developing our infrastructure, investing a lot of money in sports.

"We pay a lot of money to winners of European Championships and World Championships for example, and Olympic medallists get a pension for life."

Tigran Martisrosyan, a world champion weightlifter, is one of Armenia's stars whose name will live on.

Sport schools are being built around the country, named after Martirosyan in the Armavir region where he comes from, Rio Olympic wrestling champion Artur Aleksanyan in second city Gyumri, and footballer Khoren Hovhannisyan - the first Armenian to play in the World Cup in 1982 - in capital Yerevan.

There are plans for two more named after world champion boxers Artur Abraham and Vic Darchinyan.

"The Prime Minister [Nikol Pashinyan] said as many Olympic gold medals as we have, we will build that many schools named after our Olympic champions," said Harutyunyan.

He said it was difficult to assess the overall investment but the cost of the Aleksanyan sport complex in Gyumri is $12 million (£9.6 million/€10.8 million) and "investment is now three to four times more" than it was in the past two to three years.

Some of the investment comes from wealthy businessmen with Armenian roots living overseas.

Refurbishment and development work is being carried out to improve the national multi-sport training centre up in the mountains in Tsagkhadzor, which was a popular training venue for the Soviet Union weightlifting team.

The funding for that comes from the American-Armenian philanthropist Albert Boyajian.
"The opening of two new media channels was evidence that public interest in sport is increasing," Harutyunyan said.

"The coverage of the European Championships was very good, the event was very popular.

Crowds enjoyed as home weightlifters dominated the European Championships ©Armenia Ministry of Education, Science, Sport and Culture
Crowds enjoyed as home weightlifters dominated the European Championships ©Armenia Ministry of Education, Science, Sport and Culture

"You saw how much joy there was when our athletes were winning.

"We need medals. 

"The war of 2020 (with Azerbaijan) brought a bad atmosphere to Armenia, sport can bring happiness."

The enmity with Azerbaijan led to a controversial incident at the Opening Ceremony in Yerevan, the day before the weightlifting began, when an Azerbaijan flag was set alight.

"We are trying our best to avoid that sort of incident," said Harutyunyan.

"We are working to persuade international colleagues that it was a small incident, solved immediately.

"All the athletes here had no problem with security, they are fond of Armenia, they praised the organisation.

"Our friends at the EWF told us that they had a Plan B for this year, because they were not sure we would be able to host the Championships.

"Now they can see that we did our best, they said this was the best Championships ever."

The venue for the weightlifting, the Karen Demirchyan Sport Complex, is another big asset for Armenia.

It hosted 4,400 fans for Sunday’s final day of competition and can hold more, as it has a third, rotating tribune that was not used.

The complex, named after a former Armenian President during its early independence years,  was built for the 1983 European Championships but not used, because at two months notice the Soviet Union switched the event to Moscow.

The main area and tribunes sit on piles, with another huge space beneath.

"The design is unusual, we are in the air now," said Harutynyan before the final session, which brought two more medals for Armenia.

"It’s unbelievable that in the 1980s they built a building of the 21st century - it is amazing."