European Games: Road to Baku

Elisha Chauhan travelled to Baku to gain first-hand experience of preparations for the inaugural European Games, the biggest sporting event to be held in Azerbaijan. What legacy will they leave for the city?

Though it failed twice in a row to reach candidate status in the bidding for the summer Olympic Games, Baku has built a strong portfolio of international sporting events in a number of different shapes and sizes.

World championships in gymnastics, wrestling and boxing have all been held in Baku in the last decade, while from next year the streets of the Azeri capital will host Formula One’s European grand prix.

However, next month’s inaugural European Games will undoubtedly be the biggest test of Baku’s hosting abilities to date, with 6,000 athletes from 50 NOCs (national Olympic committees) competing in 20 sports from June 12-28. Eighteen competition venues will play stage events, of which 12 are permanent and five are new builds (see Building Baku below).

Baku was the only bidder for the European Games for good reason – the event was only approved in December 2012, giving potential host cities only 30 months to prepare for the Games at a time when parts of Europe had only just started to see signs of recovery from the 2008 global financial crisis.

No matter how
much oil is out
in the Caspian Sea,
the one thing
money can’t buy
is time

However, for Baku the event was seen as an invaluable step towards boosting its chances to bid to host the Olympic Games, fast-tracking infrastructure improvements as well as giving the country much-needed event-hosting experience.

“Let me assure you there’s still a lot to do, but I think it is important to recognise that Baku was given 30 months to prepare to host the European Games and not the normal seven years you would have to prepare for the Olympic or Commonwealth Games,” says Simon Clegg, chief operating officer of local organising committee BEGOC (the Baku European Games operation committee).

“No matter how much oil is out in the Caspian Sea, the one thing money can’t buy is time – and time has been and continues to be the biggest challenge for this project,” he adds.

Clegg was named COO for Baku 2015 following the departure of his predecessor Jim Scherr in April 2014 after a year in the position. Clegg – who was a special advisor to Baku 2015 before becoming COO – was chief executive of the British Olympic Association (BOA) from 1997 to 2009 and was pivotal in bringing the Olympic Games to London in 2012. 

In addition to the time restraint, BEGOC has been put under pressure by the devaluation of Azeri currency as a result of a recent drop in global oil prices. This has meant initial plans for the European Games have been downscaled, despite BEGOC having a budget of $900 million. Oil and gas accounts for 95 per cent of Azerbaijan’s exports and 70 per cent of government revenues.

Clegg concedes that the changing oil prices have been something the organising committee have “been very conscious of”.

“Just like any local organising committee, you get to this stage of the Games preparation and you ask yourself if there are things that are not essential to delivering an ideal Games,” he says. “Over the last six months there has been a certain degree of rationalisation in terms of making sure that, within the timeframe we have, we can focus on delivering an outstanding event.

“That has resulted in some modest budget reductions that are entirely fitting, appropriate and consistent with what previous organising committees have gone through.”

Passing the Baton

One challenge that faces organising committees in all developing nations is a lack of local expert event professionals. The 2015 Games will require 12,000 volunteers, 2,000 members of staff and 20,000 contractors and security personnel.

Due to a lack of experience, paid Azeri staff have received a three-week crash course in event-hosting led by 400 knowledgeable ex-pats, many of which worked on the 2012 London Olympics.

“Compressing seven years of work in two would be challenging in any country, but for a region that has never hosted an event on this scale before, it increases the challenge several folds,” says Gavin McAlpine, Baku 2015 director of operational capability and readiness.

“Normally when people join an organisation, they get the very bare minimum in terms of orientation – give them a laptop and a video of Ancient Olympia and wish them good luck. We had to challenge ourselves to think really differently about how we equip the paid staff with the skills and the knowledge they need to plan the Games and also to manage the operation. 

“These include table exercises, rooms where we have different functions and partners sat around a horseshoe table. Here we take them through various scenarios that could happen during the Games, detailing ‘Plan A’ and ‘Plan B’ in case things don’t go to plan.

“It’s a practical way for people to learn, and they have responded very well to the exercise. It creates a sense of realism of what might actually happen during the Games, bearing in mind around 95 per cent of the Azeri staff have never worked on hosting an event before.”

Sporting Culture

BEGOC has also invested significant time attempting to understand spectator behaviour given Baku 2015 is wandering into unknown territory in terms of planned crowd control, with only its test sporting events to analyse logistics from. Over 600,000 spectators are expected to watch the Games over its 17 days of competition.

“Many of our venues are much smaller than what you would see in London, so in some cases the crowd behaviour is not so much of a concern,” says McAlpine. “However, it is a big focus for the opening ceremony when we have 45,000 people attending. We’re expecting seven splits in terms of those who arrive by the metro and those who will arrive by bus.

“Deviations in that split may actually cause us some significant operational issues, so we’re looking at various models very closely. We will do a big test event for the [Olympic] stadium at the beginning of May, which looks at the stadium in ceremonious mode to identify the pattern of spectator arrivals.”

Adult tickets for sport sessions will cost between $1.90 and $4.75 and under 16s gain free admission to all events except those held at the Heydar Aliyev Arena and the National Gymnastics Arena. BEGOC is therefore expecting to attract a large number of Azeris, though Clegg is not expecting a significant presence of international fans.

“We have to be realistic for the first event – until people actually know what they’re buying, it will be difficult to attract international spectators. Outside of that, there may be some hardcore fans that go to every event of their favourite sport,” he says.

Despite this, Clegg believes that the success of the event will be determined by the participating athletes, who will hopefully “spread the word amongst the sporting community” both in Europe and around the world. This, he says, will help market the event and also make future editions even more attractive from a broadcasting and sponsorship perspective.

In the immediate future, though, success for Clegg is the legacy left in Baku and Azerbaijan as a whole, which has already benefitted from state-of-the-art infrastructure and a trained workforce if nothing else.

“This is a real opportunity for Azerbaijan to showcase itself to the world going forward, which is incredibly helpful from a diversification of economy perspective” he says.

“We’re not only leaving a physical legacy in terms of infrastructure that this capital city much needed, but also a real human legacy so that in future there won’t be an old grey-haired Englishman like me running an event.”

Building Baku

Of the 18 competition venues being used for the 2015 Baku European Games, 12 are permanent, five of which are new builds:

1. National [Olympic] Stadium: Ground for the 68,000-capacity venue broke in June 2011. It opened on March 6 this year. It will host the opening and closing ceremonies

2. National Gymnastics Arena: The 5,400-capacity venue hosted the Rhythmic Gymnastics European Championships in June 2014 as its first international event

3. BMX Velopark: Located south of the Flag Square and European Games Park, with a capacity for just under 1,000 spectators

4. Baku Aquatics Centre: Boasting two 50-metre swimming pools and a diving pool, the venue has a capacity of 2,000

5. Baku Shooting Centre: Has a capacity of 500 and located 30-minutes west of Baku.


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