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Europe on a budget | Minsk plans a more modest European Games

Where the 2015 European Games in Baku were extravagant, the 2019 edition in Minsk plans to be frugal. Dominic Bliss asks whether the Belarussian capital can deliver the EOC’s flagship event on a shoestring.

Is the European Games suffering from a sophomore slump? After the lavish, flamboyant, big-budget success of the inaugural 2015 Games in Baku, the next edition (in the Belarussian capital of Minsk in 2019) is bound to appear somewhat pale by comparison.

Baku is believed to have spent a total of $6.5billion on the greatest show Azerbaijan has ever staged. Minsk, on the other hand, has already admitted it is strapped for cash and has asked for financial help from the European Olympic Committees (the rights-holder behind the Games) and the International Olympic Committee. The country’s sport and tourism minister, Alexander Shamko, has said it will spend just $40 million. Where the 2015 European Games were extravagant, the 2019 Games, it seems, will be frugal.

Pierce O’Callaghan is a senior consultant at the EOC. He was director of sports for Baku 2015 and is now consulting for Minsk 2019. “The investment that Baku made, particularly because it was the first edition, scared a lot of countries off,” he told SportBusiness International on the subject of future host cities. “The EOC have recognised that. A lot of countries would love to organise the European Games, but people felt that after Baku had spent all that money, [they] could never compete with that.”

O’Callaghan says this is why Minsk was initially hesitant when the EOC approached them. “We tried to reassure them that we do not want a gargantuan Games,” he adds. “We want a sustainable, affordable, easy-to-transport from city-to-city Games, with a long-term future.”

Budgetary concerns

However, before Minsk came on board, the bidding process was decidedly messy. In May 2015 the Netherlands agreed to be the host nation, but pulled out a month later, citing budgetary concerns. Then Russia was approached, until the state-sponsored doping scandal forced them to withdraw. Finally, in October 2016 Minsk signed on the dotted line.

Although the details of its hosting agreement, such as venues and budgets, won’t be revealed until early 2017, O’Callaghan says there are several areas where it can economise on hosting costs.

The majority of sports will be staged in existing venues and with several high-profile events already under Minsk’s belt – it hosted the UCI Track Cycling World Championships and the European Amateur Boxing Championships in 2013, plus the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in 2014 and the European Speed Skating Championships in 2016 – such recycling shouldn’t prove too problematic.

The opening and closing ceremonies will no doubt be scaled down, quite dramatically compared to the excess of Baku. “Huge ceremonies work really well for the Olympic Games,” O’Callaghan explains. “The flame is lit. The flags are raised. It’s all part of Olympic pageantry. Maybe that’s not necessary in the European Games.”

Furthermore, the number of featured sports can be pared down. Baku hosted 20 sports, but, according to O’Callaghan, the original blueprint for the European Games was for just 10 or 12 sports. It was always planned that Minsk should choose its own sports programme rather than having excess sports foisted upon it.

Finally, there’s the question of the athletes’ village. O’Callaghan suggests visiting athletes might be housed in existing hotels or student accommodation. Since they will all be travelling from within Europe, acclimatisation will be quicker and easier, meaning their stay in Minsk doesn’t need to be as long as, say, for an Olympic Games. “The European Games will never stop the world the way the Olympics does,” he adds. “We want it to be: come in, compete and leave.” Provided commercial sponsors take an interest in Minsk, there are opportunities to offset many of the staging costs.

Simon Clegg, who worked as chief operating officer for Baku 2015, believes this is Minsk’s trump card. “Commercial revenue can be driven from commercial sponsorship, broadcasting revenues, ticket sales and licensing and merchandise programmes,” he tells SportBusiness International.

He also points out how Minsk can use Baku’s success as a springboard. “Minsk will benefit from the value of the European Games brand through what was achieved and delivered in Baku,” he adds.

With Belarus, there are sure to be certain controversies, however. The country’s human rights record is hardly exemplary and its president, Alexander Lukashenko (who also heads up his nation’s Olympic committee), has been criticised for persecuting journalists and political opponents. There have also been a worrying number of positive doping tests involving Belarussian athletes in recent years in a range of sports.

When the EOC General Assembly decided to award the games to Minsk, not all national Olympic committees were happy. Denmark and Norway voted against the decision, while five others abstained.

The EOC are further troubled since their former president, Patrick Hickey, is awaiting trial in Brazil, charged with illegal resale of Olympic tickets. Although he denies any wrongdoing, the situation is embarrassing for the organisation. O’Callaghan was asked by this magazine about the case, but said, given the legal situation, he preferred not to comment.

There’s a further potential problem raised by a second pan-European multi-sport event called the European Championships. Also due to be staged every four years and launching in August 2018 (at venues split between Glasgow and Berlin), this will bring under one umbrella European Championships in athletics, aquatics, cycling, gymnastics, golf, rowing and triathlon. Inevitably, there’s a risk that the impact of the European Games may become diluted by the existence of the European Championships.

Sports fans are sure to confuse both events, especially since they are just a year apart.

Higher calibre

The downside for Minsk is that European Athletics sees the European Championships as its flagship event and the European Games as a lower-tier event. The upside, however, is that, coming in 2019, a year before the Tokyo Olympics, the European Games are in a better position to offer qualifying points for the Olympics and thereby attract a higher calibre of athlete.

As O’Callaghan points out, this might enable his event to steal a march on the European Championships which, in 2018, will be outside of the Olympic qualifying period. Indeed, President Lukashenko has urged more sports to offer Olympic qualifying points in Minsk. Optimistically, O’Callaghan has stated that “the two events can quite happily co-exist”.

The EOC are already looking beyond Minsk to the 2023 edition of their European Games. They wouldn’t yet reveal which host cities are interested, although O’Callaghan described how they were targeting “not the mega-cities of Europe”, but rather cities with populations of one, two or three million, cities that may lack the pulling power to stage the Olympic Games, but that still desire the kudos of an international multi-sport event. He said the EOC also wants to avoid the complicated and expensive bidding processes witnessed in the Olympics.

With such optimism over the future, suggestions that the European Games are currently in a sophomore slump may appear harsh. The Belarussians are certainly very bullish about their event. “We have made a historic decision,” said President Lukashenko, after being awarded the Games. “Belarus is not a superpower, but we pay a lot of attention to sport. You can count on Belarus.”

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