Niyaz Bilalov: ‘An Olympic gold will become the highest award for me’
The owner of two Grand Slam medals about key sports goals, the strongest rivals and education of his son
The Tajikistan Judo Grand Prix took place in Dushanbe. Tatarstan judoka, two-time Grand Slam gold medallist, champion of Russia from Naberezhnye Chelny Niyaz Bilalov won a silver medal in the under 100 kg category. According to the unofficial medal table, Russian athletes became winners by winning 11 medals — five golds, four silvers and two bronze awards. The International Judo Federation allowed Russian judokas to compete in tournaments only as individual neutral athletes. Competitions are awaiting the Chelny athlete soon — this time in Astana, Qazaqstan Barysy Grand Slam judo tournament. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, Niyaz Bilalov told us more about what opponents he will have to face, if there is any limit in a sports career and if he is ready to change citizenship.
“It was a good start after a two-year break”
Niyaz, did the competition in Tajikistan become the first tournament for you this year?
The Grand Prix in Dushanbe is my firs top-level competition in the last almost two years. The last time I competed in an international tournament in Baku in 2021 when I won the Grand Slam for the second time. To be honest, the recent tournament didn’t include the leaders, because the World Championship ended recently. Those opponents that competed with me were strong enough, they are in the world’s top 150 best judokas.
How hard was this competition?
Firstly, the opponent was strong enough. Secondly, I made a slight tactical mistake — I didn’t stick to my scheme till the end. Though the beginning was good, I decided to change the tactics two minutes later — this was a wrong decision, and this is why my rival won me. Yes, I am happy I managed to win a medal but I am still disappointed I lost in the final. Anyway, I think it was a good start after a two-year break.
At the recent Tajikistan Grand Prix Russians had to compete as neutral athletes. What do you think about the interference of politics into sport and culture?
For me, sport is outside politics. I think these two things should exist separately from each other, do not bother each other.
Are you ready to change citizenship for the sake of sport and performance at international level?
I couldn’t do this, to move to some country. Russia has given me a lot, I create my career here, achieve certain results, my parents, my own family, my friends are here. This is why if I received such a proposal, I would reject it.
“I am not going to fulfil my ambitions on my son”
How did you start practising precisely judo?
I grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s, you know yourself what times these were. And my parents took me to a judo club at Olympiysky sports club here in Chelny so that I wouldn’t wander in the street, get involved in some story. I started go to training, loved this sport with all my soul. I had a timetable since childhood: school, training, sleep. I didn’t even have the time to be outdoors with my age mates. Today it is almost the same in this respect: I wake up, go to training, then spend some time with my family, my kid, take a nap and go to training again.
How do you see the future of your son? Do you want to him to follow in your footsteps?
Yes, I became a dad a year ago, which I am very happy about. I would like to take him to judo when he is ready for this, grows up a bit because I love this sport very much. But I certainly won’t say: ‘Come on, you have to.’ Or something else. It is great if he likes, catches his attention. If not, I will offer him to try something different. I am not going to fulfil my ambitions on my son.
You have been in judo for 21 years now, didn’t you want to do something different?
To be honest, I start to feel year after year that I love judo more and more, this feeling just gets stronger. I have never felt over all these years that I doubted my choice and thought: ‘Why did I need this? What if I give up, change something, find a job?’ For me, there is only judo, no any other option.
What does your spouse think about your sports career? Does she support you?
Yes, a hundred per cent. I am very lucky in this respect. My wife is involved in this sport as much as possible, though she has never practised it. But I think she is already better at judo than me: she knows all my rivals, who fights and how, she is interested in listening to me after every competition when I share my opinion, emotions. She can give a tip from her perspective, she supports me in everything.
To take judo to a new level in Tatarstan
What’s the guarantee of victory during a combat against your rival on the mat?
I think one’s own tactics play the decisive role in the bout. The most important thing is to stick to it from the beginning till the end. Of course, endurance that helps withstand the rival’s moves till the end the bout plays a role too. Plus, the character, the will of power and the main goal, which is to win.
And it goes without saying one always has to be a step ahead. If you are slow, lag behind, of course, a more experienced rival will just defeat you.
How much do you think a judoka’s career last?
Here everything depends on the case: somebody retires before 30 years, while somebody wins the Olympics at 35, all the talent and capabilities are displayed differently. Perhaps, the duration also depends on the physical component. If a judoka gets a serious injury, while judo is a very dangerous sport, the competition in prestigious competitions can unlikely be discussed.
What do you plan to do in the long term?
I am 28 yet, but I am already starting to think about prospects. I plan to open my own big gym in Naberezhnye Chelny to train boys, educate the future substitution of champions so that they practice judo like me and win. I want to develop judo in Tatarstan, to take it to a new level.
What is the most memorable competition and why?
I think it was my first competition in Bugulma. Though I lost in the first doubt I still remember this competition very well, even 20 years later. I think for me the result, in fact, was a stimulus for all other victories I had later.
What’s the philosophy of judo and how does it influence life?
For me, it is one short but deep phrase — a flexible way to the victory. If a kid starts practising judo, this sport starts to completely change him or her — from the way of thinking to the behaviour. And altogether this really helps in life: a quick and flexible mind allows finding a way out of difficult situations, solve some problems, succeed in everything without damage. The sports discipline has an impact on a person — results cannot be achieved without it.
Today teenagers are rarely seen at the gym. Is the decreased popularity of martial arts and sport among children the reason? Or are there any other reasons?
I think it is the impact on the Internet, computers. When I was that age, the football pitch in the yard was always full, there was even a queue. Today they are mostly empty. But I will stay that the popularity of judo doesn’t go down — a lot of boys and even girls come to classes and training, at least in Chelny. It is pleasant when they recognise me, come and ask me to sign an autograph, we take photos together.
“An Olympic gold is the highest award for me”
It is a vocation to become a champion?
I think a vocation is only hard work, self-confidence. If you train a lot, you will certainly be lucky, it will come on its own.
Athletes practising martial arts are involved in ultimate fighting or MMA competitions that allow making quite good money. Have you considered such a possibility for yourself?
For me I certainly haven’t. There is an opportunity, but I don’t have the slightest desire. Though it is very interesting to watch these bouts, it is spectacular but for laymen. To be honest, these sports have a very serious impact on one’s health.
What’s your favourite action you always use in a bout on the mat?
It is a hold. It somehow becomes the foundation, the basis of the bout — everything starts from there. But interestingly, I don’t manage to do it in competitions though I practice it quite a lot.
Have you achieved all goals in your career as judoka?
No, I haven’t been even close to what I want. This is why there is still a lot to work on. I have big goals. One of them is the Olympics and a medal at the world judo championship. The Grand Slam and victories in this tournament for me are like steps to big, major accomplishments. And an Olympic gold will become the highest award for me. At this stage of my life, I am one stair up taking to this goal. I think there are going to be other stairs in the future too.
It’s hard to be on the national team for the Olympics. What are the chances?
There is an Olympic rating, and the participation in such tournaments as Grand Slam allows scoring rating points. Then there is a selection process according to their sum of these points in would-be Olympians’ weight categories. I don’t yet look ahead, also, the competition in my category under 100 kg is very close. The World Judo Championship recently took place where athlete from our national team Arman Adamyan from Volgograd won — this victory becomes a considerable big for the Olympics for him.
Who do you think the strongest opponents for Russians among judokas are?
I think first of all it is Japanese and Georgian athletes. But every country, every weight category has a judoka who can become a very good rival. But in Russia in my weight category, I have four key rivals we have quite close competition with. It is Olympic medallist Niyaz Ilyasov, now world champion Adamyan and a young athlete I lost to in Tajikistan Matvey Kanikovsky, who is just 21 and considered to be genius. I will note once again that we have a strong competition. This is why when we come to an international competition altogether, we simply do not notice other rivals besides ours, Russians. At the same time, outside the tatami we get along very well, they all are good lads. But when you start combatting with some of then, we cannot care about friendship and compliments.
What other tournaments are you preparing for this year?
Now I am seriously preparing for my third Grand Slam. The world judo tournament started in Astana, it is more prestigious than the championship itself. I have competed in it more than 10 times in my sports career and two of them gave two a gold medal. This time I am going for a third gold, only to win!