Michael Pavitt

Of all the presentations given at the European Olympic Committees (EOC) seminar over the past two days, the most well attended was the update on preparations for the Minsk 2019 European Games. 

A greater number of chairs were present for a start, while the vast number of National Olympic Committee (NOC) representatives was shown when the majority departed the room immediately afterwards when an organisation called WADA arrived. That is another story for now.

NOCs were unsurprisingly eager for more details to be fleshed out regarding the second edition of the multi-sport event, with information having been rather sketchy in the past couple of years as the Games future seemed at risk.

The withdrawal of The Netherlands on the eve of Baku 2015 was an early blow. The expense and extravagance of the Games in the Azeri capital would have likely seen some interested cities back away. Russia then dropped out of the running after the IOC warned they would not support events there following allegations of state-sponsored doping.

While they are exceedingly unlikely to admit it, the EOC would probably have preferred to have had the second edition elsewhere. The country's poor reputation for human rights and wider freedoms is among the greatest concerns heading towards the event, particularly as Baku 2015 was dogged by similar criticisms.

Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko has been accused of persecuting against non-Governmental organisations, independent journalists, national minorities and opposition politicians. He was denied a visa by Britain to attend the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

When the Games was awarded at the EOC General Assembly last year, Denmark and Norway voted against it and five others, including Britain, abstained. Both Denmark and Norway had expressed concerns over the financing of the event or what structure of the Games would be.

Frankly it was not a great start.

The EOC needs Minsk to avoid the extravagance shown at the Baku 2015 European Games ©Getty Images
The EOC needs Minsk to avoid the extravagance shown at the Baku 2015 European Games ©Getty Images

The political issues look unlikely to go away in the near future, while scrutiny will probably increase as the Games draws nearer. The country’s Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov being named chair of Minsk 2019 is certainly an interesting step.

The NOCs present here in Minsk were certainly provided with a relatively thorough update from organisers and the EOC. They will likely have been pleased to hear that the EOC will cover travel for athletes and NOC officials to the Games, while Minsk 2019 will pick up the tab regarding the cost of staying in the host city. It is clear from this the EOC are going to continue to support the event from a crawl, to a walk and eventually a runaway success.

Minsk 2019 will certainly play an important role in whether this happens, particularly when making the event seem more attractive to cities regarding the cost. It is clear the total of at least $1.2 billion (£998 million/€1.1 billion) invested by Azerbaijan in Baku 2015 – although the cost was believed to be higher – was extreme and completely unsustainable for future editions of the Games.

Minsk claimed last year they would invest $40 million ($33 million/€37 million) to stage the event. Should that be the case, it would represent a far more attractive option to cities at a time when mega sports events are struggling to find organisers. For the future of the European Games, it will be important for the figure to be as low as possible and one which helps readdress the perception of the event after Baku.

Cutting out the excess of Baku seems like the place the EOC have started, with the organisation having firmly expressed the view that construction of new facilities is not something which is being particularly welcomed. Spyros Capralos, who led an EOC Coordination Commission visit to Minsk last week, provided a sensible take on the issue.

“We did not want the organisers to have huge expenses in building sports facilities,” he explained to NOCs. “Therefore, one of the rules is to only use existing facilities. Maybe, facilities which would require refurbishment or improvement, but not constructing facilities, expect if the organiser has its own role to build facilities for its own use.”

Street athletics is set to be part of a smaller programme of events ©Getty Images
Street athletics is set to be part of a smaller programme of events ©Getty Images

This was clearly in evidence when the list of venues was presented, with only the Dinamo Stadium requiring upgrades out of the competition sites. Renovations have been taking place at the stadium since 2012, with the project having been stressed to have been separate from the Games.

The move to have badminton competitions taking place at the Minsk Velodrome is an interesting move. While it is not ground-breaking – the UCI told me last year’s their velodrome is regular used by a variety of local sport clubs for events – it certainly shows a more sensible approach from organisers. Rather than aiming to make the Games more bloated, there are positive steps to make the event more manageable in the long-term.

For instance, the number of athletes at the Games will be around 4,000, compared to the near 6,000 at Baku 2015. There are due to be 11 days of competition in Minsk, whereas there were 16 at the inaugural event. The number of sports have been reduced from 20 to 16. It is then worth pointing out the likes of mountain biking and BMX will not be included as part of the cycling programme and while beach volleyball remains from Baku, volleyball has gone.

The programme has clearly been streamlined and arguably the vast majority of the sports do not require specialist facilities, as sport halls would likely suffice. The loss of triathlon does appear something of a blow, considering the sport’s popularity, while the programme does still appear combat heavy, despite taekwondo not being included.

Both athletics and aquatics were undoubtedly low key at Baku 2015, with athletics being a combined European Games and European Athletics Team Championships Third League competition, while swimming was for junior competitors only.

It certainly feels a blow for the Games aquatics is completely absent from Minsk. High level aquatics competition is surely needed in the future in the event is to fully establish itself. A more prominent role for athletics is certainly a boost, with the promise of an “innovative” event having been agreed in principle. This is in part due to European Athletics having an existing broadcasting deal for their European Championships, so the format cannot be replicated.

While full details of what it will involve are expected to be revealed later this year, street athletics will be part of the product. It also appears likely there will be a team format to the event.

A strong and innovative athletics product would be a huge boost for the sport and the Games itself. Particularly as the latter needs to find ways to firmly establish itself in the public’s consciousness and attract a wide audience if it is to continue long in to the future.