Patrick Burke

On paper, the European Games as a concept should thrive in a continent which loves its sport. Its inaugural edition in Baku in 2015 completed a full set of five continental Games across the Olympic Movement.

Yet for its first two editions, the multi-sport event faced a battle for relevancy on a continent which, as Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) President Francesco Ricci Bitti noted, already has a high volume of elite-level competition.

Its cause was perhaps not helped by the selection of two controversial host nations in Azerbaijan and Belarus and the sporting programme being halved for Minsk 2019.

It is unthinkable we would have heard boos the likes of which we heard for Polish Minister of State Assets Jacek Sasin and to a lesser degree President Andrzej Duda at the Opening Ceremony at one of the first two editions. On a personal note I can truly say I have never heard a noise like it in Sasin's case - it felt like there were a lot more than just over 20,000 people inside the Henryk Reyman Stadium.

Once it got underway, Kraków-Małopolska 2023 marked a notable step in the right direction towards the European Games fulfilling a function that there is surely a space for on a congested continental calendar.

There were 91 quota places available at the Games across 10 sports for the Paris 2024 Olympics, including an apparent drive towards direct qualification opportunities in sports such as boxing, modern pentathlon and table tennis. Further Olympic sports offer ranking points contributing to qualification, including taekwondo and triathlon.

Driven to a large extent by the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) through its boxing qualification procedure devised in place of the banished International Boxing Association, Kraków-Małopolska 2023 ticked the box of providing more meaningful competition than the first two European Games.

Officials want it to be just the start, as ANOC secretary general Gunilla Lindberg discussed earlier this week.

European Olympic Committees sport director Peter Brüll said discussions have already begun over securing Olympic qualifying formats for the 2027 edition of the European Games, a host for which is still to be decided although according to President Spyros Capralos is now between two candidates.

The European Games began with Polish Minister of State Assets Jacek Sasin resoundingly jeered at the Opening Ceremony ©Kraków-Małopolska 2023
The European Games began with Polish Minister of State Assets Jacek Sasin resoundingly jeered at the Opening Ceremony ©Kraków-Małopolska 2023

"We spoke here about continuing in the same way, doing the same thing or maybe including some new disciplines, so it is on the agenda this year to agree with most of the sports for 2027," Brüll told insidethegames.

Gymnastics and swimming are the two most notable absences from the Kraków-Małopolska 2023 programme. Brüll insists he is "100 per cent sure" the former will be at the 2027 edition, after a suitable venue was unavailable for this year. Regarding swimming, he said that while a full European Championships programme may not be feasible due to the additional number of athletes this would bring to the Games, talks are ongoing with the European Swimming League (LEN) over a solution.

"We have very good relations with the European Federation, so there is I think a mutual wish to have swimming, we just need to find the right format," he added.

"Having European Championships in swimming I don't think is feasible, the number of athletes at such a big event would mean it is maybe not the best idea, but I am sure there are many other possibilities for how to include swimming. Of course swimming qualification for the Olympics is based on times. You can have competition that does not need to be European Championships with athletes, you can still have an Olympic qualifier.

"We are in talks with LEN, but from both sides there is a wish to have swimming on the programme.

"The same as in judo. We have a good understanding to having again the individual European Championships and not just the mixed team, but every European Championships and every big event means more athletes, so then we need to evaluate which sports to have because you cannot have everybody.

"We have rugby sevens, we had field hockey trying to get in with the Olympic qualifiers and European Championships, but it is a big number of athletes if it is a team sport."

EOC sport director Peter Brüll said
EOC sport director Peter Brüll said "it is on the agenda this year to agree with most of the sports" on a format for the 2027 European Games ©ITG

Athletics was brought to another level at Kraków-Małopolska 2023 compared to previous European Games, with the European Athletics Team Championships. It is a format the EOC believes was successful and wants to continue for future editions.

Competition was certainly at a high standard on the track and field. Off it, crowds were a disappointment, and that has been a theme that has largely continued throughout the European Games. Capralos himself said that while the EOC had been "positively surprised" by the Games and the regional model - which takes quite a bit of getting used to and a more integrated public transport solution to travel between host towns and cities is a must if this is to become the norm - crowds had been "a little bit negative" and could be blamed on "not much advertising or poor marketing".

Crowds have certainly been dwarfed by those at last year's multi-sport European Championships in Munich, an event overseen by the company European Championships Management.

Is there truly space for both of these major events back-to-back on the European calendar, or is some form of merger possible, I asked Brüll? He thinks yes to the first part, and no to the second.

"Sure we can co-exist. I don't see them as a rival," he insisted.

"I was in Munich last year to see what was a great competition in different sports. Most of the Federations that were in Munich are here now with us.

"The few that are not like rowing are because there is not a two-kilometre course, but I would make it the other way around - we are not one year after the European Championships, we are one year before the Olympics.

"We have the Olympic qualifiers and we want to have the connection with the Olympic Games. It is a totally different event from the European Championships so we can perfectly co-exist."

From ASOIF's perspective, Ricci Bitti was among the interested visitors to the European Games. While the ambitions are clearly big for the European Games, he struck a cautionary note about the reach and scale of the multi-sport event.

The multi-sport European Championships was held in Munich last year, but Peter Brüll insists it can " perfectly co-exist" with the European Games ©Getty Images
The multi-sport European Championships was held in Munich last year, but Peter Brüll insists it can " perfectly co-exist" with the European Games ©Getty Images

"The asset in a sport with a lot of appeal becomes the calendar and time, so there is not a lot of space. We cannot believe the future is to have more competition, the future is to have better competition. In Europe, this programme is even more stringent because it is a continent with a lot of competition," he told insidethegames.

"The cultural cohesion of the continent is more and more evident. The problem in my opinion is to control the size, to control the number of sports, to make the organisation based on existing venues and to make it a sort of festival that is good for the organiser, so choosing the right organiser."

Ricci Bitti suggested the continental Games are an ideal place for "testing new sports", and indeed that has provided some of most memorable highlights of the Games. Staging competition on the Main Square Kraków in padel and teqball - two upcoming sports generating increasing interest across Europe - was a great initiative from organisers.

Both were brilliant to watch and drew a buzz around the city during competition days which had perhaps been lacking with the absence of a main stadium for athletics, the marquee event of any Games, in Kraków. Free entry is something organisers deserve praise for, and ensured both sports proved highly popular and well-attended.

Padel and teqball on Kraków's Main Square have been among the highlights for the European Games ©Kraków-Małopolska 2023
Padel and teqball on Kraków's Main Square have been among the highlights for the European Games ©Kraków-Małopolska 2023

The downside was competition was completely at the mercy of the weather. The first planned day of padel on the Main Square was moved indoors. The second was a major hit in the sun, but a high-quality men's doubles final between Spain's two seeds won by Daniel Santigosa and David Gala against Alonso Rodríguez and Pablo García deserved better than a 12.29am start and 1.37am finish. By which time most of the crowd had long had to go home ready for the Monday morning. Rain also disrupted teqball, with the women's doubles delayed until today and end of the men's singles postponed until tomorrow.

But organisers cannot control the weather, and the disruption was a small price to pay for a superb product across several days on the Main Square.

It has been a learning experience here at Kraków-Małopolska 2023. There have been teething issues and the crowds could and should have been better, but the European Games has taken a further step towards establishing itself on the continental sporting calendar.

The big moment to work towards now is 2027. A host which can draw similar spectator numbers and interest to last year's European Championships in Munich would cement the European Games' status within continental sport.