Feature | Judo

Nikoloz Sherazadishvili: the judoka "between two flags"

Born in Georgia but living in Spain since he was 14, the 2018 judo world champion explains why he feels connected to both countries.

By ZK Goh ·

In Spain, Nikoloz Sherazadishvili sometimes goes by just "Niko Shera".

For many Spaniards, "Sherazadishvili" is a name they cannot pronounce. But the world champion judoka doesn't mind, for they have adopted him as their own.

The 24-year-old, who was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, has lived in Spain since he was 14 and been a citizen of the country for six years. In 2018, Sherazadishvili became the first Spanish man to win a judo world title when he beat Cuba's Iván Felipe Silva in the men's middleweight (90 kg) category.

Speaking to the Olympic Channel's Spanish-language podcast, he explained how he feels connected to and is proud to be from two countries.

"I feel like I'm between two flags," he said.

Moving to Spain

Sherazadishvili began judo at a young age in Tbilisi, where he had practised both the martial art and water polo.

When the young Nikoloz was 14, his family moved to Spain for work, and Sherazadishvili joined the Brunete judo club just outside the capital Madrid. That club was run by three-time Olympian Joaquín Ruiz, or "Quino", who remains Sherazadishvili's coach to this day.

"Aside from being my coach, Quino is like a second father," Sherazadishvili said. "He has given his all for me and I didn't see any other way to thank him," he explained about his decision to compete for Spain.

"It has not been easy because I love my country (Georgia) and I will never forget it. I say I have two countries, Georgia and Spain. At first it hurt to see the Georgian flag or to see the Georgian team but I'm very proud to represent Spain and I enjoy seeing the Spanish flag."

Despite his age, Sherazadishvili was a polyglot who already knew three languages – Georgian, Russian, and English. Learning Spanish was just a minor obstacle to overcome.

"The language was the only thing I didn't know at the beginning, but within a year I had more or less learned it, bit by bit. I already knew Russian and English and Georgian, so maybe the other languages I knew helped me."

Based permanently in Spain, Sherazadishvili only returns to Georgia once a year to see his family for Christmas.

Nikoloz Sherazadishvili competing at the Nippon Budokan during the 2019 World Championships

Inspiring kids

It was clear to Quino Ruiz from the start that this new arrival from Tbilisi who spoke little Spanish had something special.

"I realised he didn't just have talent, but he had his dreams and a passion, he wanted to be the best and he knew it clearly. These were the perfect ingredients to achieve what he has achieved," Ruiz said.

"Judo is a school for life, it teaches you values that are for life. One of those values is bravery and courage to face problems. Niko had the capability to face the world without me telling him what to do.

"I like dreaming big. I remember when Niko received (Spanish) nationality and competed for Spain for the first time. I told the president of the Spanish Judo Federation, 'this guy will be a world champion'."

That came true in 2018 when Sherazadishvili made Spanish sporting history – before him only two women, Isabel Fernández and Miriam Blasco, had won world titles in judo for the country.

His feat surpassed his coach's own best performance at a World Championships, which ended with a silver medal in Barcelona in 1991. Sherazadishvili dedicated his win to his late father, who had died a year and a half before his triumph in Baku, Azerbaijan.

"It was important for me on a family level to have dedicated this medal to my father," he said. "I achieved my dream of becoming world champion, and I was able to see the hopes and motivation I created for the future generation.

"There are kids in Georgia and Spain who want to be like me and that makes me happy."

'Niko Shera' topping the podium at the 2020 Paris Grand Slam CREDIT: Gabriela Sabau

"He deserves it"

The future continues to look bright for Sherazadishvili, who is working hard under Ruiz in preparation for Tokyo 2020 after a season disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

"We haven't stopped (training) since the first moment we could go out," he said. "I've been living in Quino's house because he has a gym, and in the first few months I did a lot of physical work. Now that we've been allowed back to training we haven't stopped, we didn't take any holidays. We're ready to return to competition.

"We're giving our all to go (to Tokyo) and win. We have no other mentality – the objective is to end up as champions."

Ruiz says his charge has the ability to change the sport.

"Niko will be a turning point for judo (in Spain). There will be a "before Niko" and an "after Niko"; he will become someone very well-known like Carolina Marín has achieved in badminton. He will achieve so much for Spain that he will hook people onto judo.

"He has made such a big sacrifice, and with the discipline he has, it has to bear fruit for him because he deserves it."