1st European Games
The Republic of Azerbaijan is the largest country in the South Caucasus region, located at the crossroads of Asia and Europe. It is on the western shores of the Caspian Sea and is bounded by Russian Federation to the north, Georgia to the north west, Armenia to the west, the Islamic Republic of Iran to the south and Turkey to the south west. The country has a population 9.6 million, similar to London and the capital Baku, with 2 million, was host to the 1st European Games in June 2015.
This inaugural edition of the European Games, an international multi-sport event for athletes representing the National Olympic Committees of Europe, featured almost 6,000 athletes from 50 countries competing in 20 sports. Baku, the sole bidder for the first Games due to the short lead in of just over two years, was awarded the right to host the first European Games at the 41st European Olympic Committee General Assembly in Rome in December 2012. The Games are due to take place every four years and the next competition in 2019 was originally awarded to the Netherlands but the Dutch Government pulled out saying the price was too high for its national and local government. The European Olympic Committee, which granted the Netherlands hosting rights, said it would resume talks with five other potential hosts.
The organising committee responsible for the Games in Baku was established by decree of the President Ilham Aliyev and is chaired by the First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva. The Chief Executive Officer of the Baku European Games Operations Committee is the Minister of Sport while the Chief Operating Officer is Simon Clegg, formerly a board member of LOCOG, organising committee for London 2012.
The Games were organised in four clusters with 18 competition venues, of which 12 will be permanent. The all new Village cluster included the 68,000 capacity Olympic stadium, the Gymnastics Arena holding almost 7,000, which could have been bigger as it was sold out for every event. The Athletes' Village was built around 13 new buildings, each adorned with flags from countries taking part. The local underground station, Koroglu, was also home to a community library and an impressive living wall. The Flag Square cluster at the Caspian water's edge, included the Crystal Hall Arena, home of the European Song Contest in 2014 and in 2015, volleyball, boxing, fencing, karate and taekwondo. The Games Park was home to the iconic new aquatic centre for swimming, diving and synchronized swimming with smart temporary arenas for water polo and beach volleyball. The City cluster starts on the water edge with the Baku Sports Hall for badminton and table tennis the smallest venue of all sites with a capacity of just 1,700. A short bus or subway ride away is the existing Tofiq Bahramov Stadium for archery and the Heydar Aliyev Arena for judo, wrestling and sambo. The shooting, BMX, Velopark, and water sports were on the edge of town or up to 45km away. Travelling around from venue to venue and in and out of the City could not have been easier using the dedicated Games buses or the underground, free to anyone with a ticket to the Games. Around 600,000 tickets were available to spectators and unlike most major sporting events they were priced, at £2 or 400 Yen a ticket, to encourage spectators to see as many sports as possible.
Both Azerbaijan and Japan have set ambitious targets for inbound tourist numbers, Azerbaijan has doubled numbers - from 2010 1.2 million to 2.3 million in 2014 - while Japan are aiming for 20 million by 2020. For new tourists, in 2015 and 2020, both countries will be viewed as very different, exotic and exciting places to visit. Both countries speak a difficult language where grammar and syntax can lead to things being 'lost in translation'. The 2003 American comedy-drama film of the same name by Sofia Coppola is an affectionate look at how Japanese people will try to help even if they don't understand the question. Scenes from the movie could be transposed to Baku where locals were very friendly but somethings did get 'lost in translation'. English language instruction is now compulsory in schools in both countries and is often the default 'second' language with most travel signage and menus in both language and with photos. I mention this as a lot of thought had been given to the volunteering programme and English speakers were always on hand at key points of entry and transport hubs. The 12,500 volunteers were called Flamekeepers as Azerbaijan is the land of flame due to the abundance of natural gas. English was often used as the 'common' language between the competitors to.
The Games have been criticised by human rights observers and some foreign journalists, including the Chief Sports Reporter for The Guardian newspaper in London, who was barred from entering the country. Politics and sport are not the best of bedfellows and in the words of FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke in the build up to the World Cup in Brazil 2014, 'less democracy is sometimes better for organising a World Cup'. Valcke, who caused some shock when voicing this opinion, is also linked to several on-going allegations of corruption within FIFA. Last year Amnesty demanded the IOC take Russia's leadership to task over 'blatant violation of human rights in the context of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games and the UK discovered sport and politics could not escape each other at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow just ahead of the vote on Scottish independence.
The Pan-American Games take place in Toronto in July 2015 and the next Asian Games will be in Jakarta in 2018; both are established events that presumably fit into the busy national and regional NGB and federation events calendar. The 1st European Games, with only two years to organise, did clash and create a scheduling row with some other federation events which meant not all countries had teams in all sports. This is something the organisers believe will be sorted by 2019. Baku did incorporate the European Judo Championships, one of the few sports to fit the calendar. On the other hand some sports, like athletics, will soon have four European championships/games. In the final medal table the host nation came second, after Russia, and GB came third. American singer Lady Gaga performed at the opening ceremony.