European Games: Uniting Europe

The European Games, a continental multi-sport event comprised of Olympic sports, were first outlined in 2010. Ahead of the inaugural Games in Baku next month, Elisha Chauhan asked their creator Pat Hickey to assess preparations and reveal his vision for future editions.

When Pat Hickey first revealed plans to create Europe’s answer to the long-established Pan-American Games and Asian Games, he certainly wasn’t met with a huge amount of enthusiasm from the sporting community.

Responding to a feasibility study commissioned by EOC (European Olympic Committee) president Hickey and carried out by Deloitte, critics suggested that the event – to be held in the year prior to the Olympic Games – would struggle to fit in an already packed sports calendar and would also threaten the value of existing commercial agreements, in particular for major events featuring Olympic sports.

“It’s true to say that in the beginning, when we announced this concept, there was resistance in some quarters; they saw the European Games as taking sponsorship money away from established events,” Hickey, who is also an International Olympic Committee member, told SportBusiness International.

“But now that we’ve got this far, all the federations at the opening ceremony will be amazed at what they’ll see.

We were absolutely swamped with applications to get onto the sports programme

“The whole idea of these Games was to increase the profile of the European athletes, because if you go back to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Europe won 74 per cent of the medals, but by 2008 Europe was down to 37 per cent. One of the reasons for that was we didn’t have our own continental Games, compared to the hugely successful Asian Games, Pan-American Games and the All-Africa Games.

“Europe has been lacking in this area. I know that there are many world championships held in Europe, but a dedicated European multi-sport event is the perfect way for our athletes to train for the Olympic Games.”

The EOC officially created the quadrennial European Games in 2012 at its general assembly in Rome when its membership – national Olympic committees (NOCs) across the continent – cast 38 votes in favour of the event. Eight voted against and three abstained.

At the same general assembly, the hosting rights for the inaugural event were also awarded to Azerbaijan’s capital Baku. Unlike the summer Olympics where a limited number of cities are able to host the event due its sheer scale, the European Games can be hosted by a number of middle-ranged cities who would struggle, or would never be interested in, securing The Greatest Show on Earth.

With a cap of 6,000 athletes for both Baku 2015 and future additions, Hickey says this is one of many reasons why NOCs saw the European Games as an attractive event to launch.

The exact size of future European Games will depend on the host city, including how many sports it is willing to host. Baku 2015, which will be held from June 12-28, will include 20 sports and believes it will attract top athletes from various disciplines as 12 events at the Games will act as qualifier events for next year’s Olympic Games in Rio.

“We started off these Games as an experiment with a target of only 10 to 12 sports. Suddenly, when the word went out about the European Games, we were absolutely swamped with applications to get onto the sports programme,” says Hickey.

“We had to close applications at 20 sports for Baku 2015, because there was physically no accommodation in Baku’s Athletes Village. On top of that, what we never expected was to have as many Olympic qualifier events as we currently do. 

“Nevertheless, we’re fully aware that for Baku 2015 we will not have the top athletes in athletics and in aquatics. We could do nothing about that, but we will now sit down with them and speak to them about participating in the 2019 Games.”

Athletics will feature in the European Games, however continental governing body European Athletics has only agreed for its fourth-tier Team Championships 3rd League to be held in Baku. European Athletics looks unlikely to commit higher-profile events to future editions of the European Games following the recent creation of the rival European Sport Championship, which will be held in 2018 (see Continental Strategy).

Wider Ambitions

With no previous experience in hosting major international or continental multi-sports events, Baku was considered as an unusual choice for the inaugural European Games. However, the city has twice bid for the summer Olympic Games – consecutively failing to secure the event in 2016 and 2020.

Baku’s decision to host the European Games should be viewed in the context of its ambitions to improve its chances when submitting another Olympic bid, with the development of venues and facilities fast-tracked to host the 2015 event. Meanwhile, Hickey says other regions steered away from bidding for the Games amid the global economic downturn and the relatively short period to prepare for the event.

“Baku has bid twice to host the Olympics, but didn’t make the first-round cut either time because they were not properly organised. However, by hosting the European Games they’re going to leave superb infrastructure, and they have brought leading experts that also operated on the 2012 London Olympic Games to the country,” Hickey adds.

“We have also insisted that two-to-four Azeris are trained up underneath these experts, so that when these Games are over they will have a trained workforce that will be able to run any European or international event. And there’s not a doubt that they will bid for the Olympics again in the future.

“Preparations are all on track, but every day counts – most host cities get seven years to prepare for a Games, but we’ve had to do it in under three years. It’s been crazy busy, but they’re in great shape and have delivered on all of their construction targets so far.”

Beyond its inexperience in hosting major sports events, criticism has been drawn to the EOC over choosing and sticking with Baku despite Azerbaijan’s alleged breach of human rights, most notably for its government’s use of torture and restricting freedom of speech and the press. Such allegations have been reported by bodies including the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe), Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch.

“Concerns over Azerbaijan’s human rights record often arise, but we’re fully committed to fulfilling our responsibility to uphold the Olympic Charter,” says Hickey. “This involves us guaranteeing journalists will be able to cover all aspects of the event, but we’re just going to stick to the sporting aspects – it’s not our job to get involved in politics.

“We’ve experienced no problems in the country, and we have safeguards from the organising committee that everything will be put in place to ensure the security and safety of all involved.”

Simple Bidding Process

The EOC’s next general assembly will take place this month from May 14-16 in Belek, Turkey, where Hickey says the host of the 2019 European Games will be revealed. There are six candidates in the running – although not publicly disclosed – that are believed to be cities from Turkey, Belarus, Poland, Russia, Scotland and the Netherlands.

The Dutch Olympic Committee (NOC*NSF), whose bid is understood to revolve around a joint effort from Amsterdam and Rotterdam, held a meeting on April 28 where it allowed its country’s member sports to show “how important hosting the event will be to the Netherlands” and “send a clear signal” to potential partners.

Hickey, however, remains tight-lipped on the 2019 European Games bidders: “We set out from the beginning not to be a carbon copy of the Olympic Games in that we won’t have an elaborate bidding process that puts huge expenditure on the cities.

“We are also keeping it very low key, by just talking to interested parties on an individual and private basis, and that process is working extremely well. I would like to think in many ways we are even ahead of Agenda 2020.

It may be within 10 years down the line when we see a winter European Games

“Our attitude is that if we go to a new city and they have particular sports that are very attractive and popular in that country – and that helps them to get more TV coverage and sponsors whether that’s local or international – we will give them free rein to do that.

“It’s fair to say that we will trickle the six candidates down to three serious contenders – and we’re already in very deep negotiations with them at the moment – but all of the six cities are experienced in major event hosting.

“We will have to decide on a host based on where best would suit the athletes, and the one that will give the best exposure to the European Games. However, I would be keen to move the Games geographically around Europe; with Baku we are in east Europe, so it would be nice to come to western or central Europe in 2019.”

Hickey did exclusively reveal to SportBusiness International, though, that the European Games will have a winter edition within the next decade. This could mean the most likely year it will take place is in 2021 or 2025, taking into consideration the 2020 and 2024 summer Olympic Games, the 2019 and 2023 summer European Games and the 2018 and 2022 winter Olympic Games.

“When we first thought up of the European Games concept, one very strong winter sports country actually proposed that we start off with a European winter Games. We were quite surprised, but decided it would be better to start with a summer edition first,” he says.

“Since we had that proposal, we started to make enquiries and discovered that a winter Games is very viable. Europe is the strongest continent at the winter Olympics, so that will definitely be a target for us down the road.

“It may probably even be within 10 years down the line when we see a winter Games, but we have to walk before we can run.”

European Sports Championships

At the end of March, less than three months to the start of the inaugural European Games, the cities of Glasgow and Berlin announced they will co-host a new European multi-sport event in 2018, dubbed the European Sports Championships.

Funded jointly by the Scottish government and Glasgow City Council, the 12-day event was formed following a decision by some of Europe’s leading sporting federations to bring together their European championships for the first time under one banner. Glasgow will host cycling, swimming, triathlon, golf and rowing with the German capital hosting athletics at its iconic Olympiastadion.

EOC (European Olympic Committee) president Pat Hickey openly admits that Baku 2015’s athletics and aquatics events will not include top athletes due to their respective European governing bodies’ committing their calendar elsewhere. However, he believes the next edition of the European Games in 2019 will.

“As president of the EOC, I will always welcome events which support the development of European sport and help European athletes reach their full potential,” he added. “This event is a completely different initiative to the European Games, with fewer sports, fewer athletes and in a different year.”


To continue reading SportBusiness International's European Games feature, please click on the links below:

Road to Baku

Continental Strategy

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