Nick Butler

When John Newman belted out the final lines of Love Me Again as athletes waltzed and danced on the centre stage last night, it brought to an end an inaugural European Games that have divided opinion and provoked praise and criticism in equal measure.

He may not be in the same stratosphere of fame as Lady Gaga, and the rumour-mill last night was that a bigger name had been a late withdrawal, but Newman’s energetic display was a solid enough-ending. And it was fitting that it should be a Briton, a country that has contributed so much to the organisation of these Games, who rounded things off.

Just two-and-a-half-years in the making, Baku 2015 were fortunate that there were so many ex-London 2012 Olympic employees happy to turn their experienced hands to a new project and it does need to be emphasised what a good job they did to get things ready in time, with barely a single major glitch to be seen.

This was my first visit to Azerbaijan and, despite being told over and over again beforehand of how the city is a “hidden gem”, my high expectations were not disappointed. Baku is picturesque, full of beautiful landmarks and, while one particularly terrifying taxi journey did take me off the beaten track into less glamorous parts, what city does not have those areas?

In a way, the country reminded me of Qatar, albeit with less sand and more of a secular outlook. 

Both are nations rich through oil, and both are working to diversify their economies into new areas and have identified hosting major events as the primary means by which to do this. There are other similarities, right down to the policy of “recruiting” athletes from other nations, and while the word “Qatar” in a sporting sense does hold negative connotations, there is no denying how phenomenal development has been achieved in recent years, with Azerbaijan potentially now poised to follow suit.

As Youth and Sports Minister Azad Rahimov admitted, these Games have generated international coverage, just not always positive. Yes, the country has occasionally been slightly naïve in its actions in comparison to more experienced sporting hosts like Russia and China. The decision to deny certain journalists accreditation to cover this event was the perfect example of this, certainly leading to more criticisms than would otherwise have been the case.

There is no doubt that Baku is a picturesque and visually striking city ©AFP/Getty Images
There is no doubt that Baku is a picturesque and visually striking city ©AFP/Getty Images

But, as a journalist here and covering the Games, some of what was written was overblown and unfair, such as the claim that we have lived in terror of our communications being compromised and our actions controlled. My colleague was once told to delete a photo of a venue, something that has not happened since the Games began, and I was barked at by a guard to stand up as the Azerbaijan National Anthem blared during the Opening Ceremony.

But that has been it.

The atmosphere has been relaxed and friendly and we have not seen any evidence of wider scrutiny. As for the claim athletes should refuse to compete here and openly address human rights issues, well in my opinion it’s just not feasible for most sportspeople, in their closeted and focused environments, to hold opinions of that nature, let alone risk detracting from preparing for competition by voicing them.

And where is the criticism for other events? The African Nations Cup in Equatorial Guinea, for example, or next year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, a country rife with corruption and poverty affecting huge chunks of the population?

To return to the sport, an area of less focus in international coverage, it has obviously been weakened by the absence of top-level swimming and athletics, and this has made a big difference from other Games I have covered, but there have been some sporting gems.

It has been a major opportunity for some of the so called lesser-profile disciplines, and, to look through a British lens, shooter Amber Hill and the men’s foil fencing team each provided outstanding moments in sports that are seldom covered. I for one, have come away with a completely different view of both of these events, and the many combat sports on the programme have also been hugely successful.

British teenager Amber Hill achieved a major breakthrough by beating some of the world's best to skeet shooting gold in Baku ©Getty Images
British teenager Amber Hill achieved a major breakthrough by beating some of the world's best to skeet shooting gold in Baku ©Getty Images

So what does this mean for the European Games?

It will clearly not be easy to find a 2019 host city, and that is a problem not just confined to Europe. Look at Asia with its struggles to find a host for its next Games last year despite a century-long tradition of continental multi-sporting events, for instance.

Talks are reportedly progressing well to incorporate improved levels of athletics and swimming next time around, although it is clear frictions remains with Federations keen to retain control over their major events.

Yet, if success therein is not achieved and the Games remain focused around these other sports, is that a bad thing? It may mean less excitement if they are held in a country where combat sports are lower profile, but my suspicions are that this will not be the case, certainly for the next edition, where Russia, Belarus and Turkey appear the favoured contenders at this stage.

Could more non-Olympic events be incorporated? Many are looking for more exposure and, with the likely demise of several of the SportAccord-organised events, such as the Urban, Mind and Combat Games, there is seemingly a gap to plug. Having the likes of sport climbing, squash and roller sports would certainly add a new dimension.

Time will tell, and while my instinct is that they will never grow to be an event of the stature of an Olympics, this was never the aim. Nonetheless, I feel the European Games will bubble along and continue to grow after a first edition which, while not perfect, was, overall, a success.

Now let’s see how the Pan American and Pacific Games compare next month…