The First European Games are over. But they will be at the forefront of public attention for a long time. Greatness of Baku 2015 will remain etched on memories for many years. As President Ilham Aliyev said the European Games will be associated with Azerbaijan and Baku.
Although a sporting tournament, Baku 2015 is a multifaceted event, which can be approached from political, economic, cultural, social and psychological points of view. We aim to emphasize some of the topical and thought-provoking points related to the European Games, and highlight the importance of this high-profile sporting event. I think the first question one should respond to is: how did Azerbaijan reach Baku 2015?
How did we reach Baku 2015?
Ten or fifteen years ago, one could hardly imagine that there will be the European Games, moreover, that Azerbaijan will be the first country to host them. Some of the countries of the Old World are quite ambitious, and, as they say, are used to looking down on others. By the way, today we reached the point when these states would be better forgetting about arrogance and learn from young countries. With this in mind, the decision to grant this continental scale event to Baku could seems surprising at first sight. In fact, the decision of the European Olympic Committees (EOC) originated from its trust and confidence in Azerbaijan and was conditioned by the country`s economic power.
Let`s look back.
Everything started on July 31, 1997 when young and energetic Ilham Aliyev, a graduate of Moscow State Institute of International Relations, who valued the role of sports in international relations, was elected president of the National Olympic Committee on the recommendation of world-renowned statesman and political figure Heydar Aliyev. This choice, made with pinpoint accuracy, was a breath of fresh air in the country`s sports life and marked a turning point in its development. Growing economic power allowed the country to have built state-of-the-art sports facilities and ensured quality training of athletes. Most of the regions of Azerbaijan, where there was not even stadiums and simple sports facilities, today boast state-of-the-art Olympic sports complexes (more than 40).
Great leader Heydar Aliyev said: Nothing can popularize a county on the global scale as sport.
Time confirmed truthfulness of this saying long ago. And the First European Games were yet another testimony to the fact that sport is an irreplaceable instrument for promotion.
Experience comes third after the will and economic opportunities. It is crucial to the success of large-scaled sporting events. Such an experience is built over years, step by step. Let`s look at some facts.
Azerbaijan has recently hosted a number of championships and sporting events on a global and European scale. Best examples include the European weightlifting championships (2012), FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup, Climbing World Cup and Grand Prix Formula-2 (2013). Baku also boasts experience in hosting large scale events, including Eurovision, Davos Economic Forum, Crans Montana Forum, World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue and Baku International Humanitarian Forum.
Finally, it`s the turn of the European Games. By the way, the idea to hold European Games emerged long ago. Alexander Kozlovsky, a member of the Executive Committee of the European Olympic Committees, says that although Jacques Rogge, former EOC president who then became head of the International Olympic Committee, tried to get this idea materialized, his efforts were in vain. Patrick Hickey, who was elected EOC president in 2006, took a firmer position on this issue, which resulted in EOC Executive Committee`s founding the European Games in December of 2009. Three years later the first host of the Games was defined.
Azerbaijan courageously undertook this heavy burden. And it`s not solely about infrastructure. Blazing a trail is not an easy task. The things were complicated by the absence of any institutions or regularities, relevant practice and standards. Add a lack of time, and you will see that Azerbaijan successfully addressed this extremely difficult task.
A historic event for Azerbaijan and Europe
In one of his speeches, President Ilham Aliyev described the First European Games as “a historic event” for both Azerbaijan and Europe. Never before the county hosted a sporting event of such a scale. Suffice it to say that a total of nearly 6,000 athletes from 50 countries competed in the Games. This was Europe`s first ever own Games.
Baku 2015 Games were magnificent, grandiose – everything from the opening to closing ceremony was excellently organized. Even our ill-wishers acknowledge this. However, many are not aware of how much labor and effort Azerbaijan put in delivering this high-profile sporting event. Every day, hour and minute of 30 months that Azerbaijan had to prepare for the Games counted.
Here one should emphasize the role of the Organizing Committee, which bore the main burden of delivering the event. Led by first lady Mehriban Aliyeva, the Organizing Committee really performed miracles, made a dream come true. It`s no coincidence that Patrick Hickey called the organizational work “fantastic”.
“I applaud tremendous work of Mehriban Aliyeva, who headed the Organizing Committee. She made a titanic contribution to the delivering of these Games. I can say that she put her heart in organizing the Games in such an excellent manner.” This is how the President of Azerbaijan described the work of the Organizing Committee and its chairperson. And everybody knows what it means “to put one`s heart in something”.
Financial resources, experience, professionalism – each of these factors is of crucial importance in the organization of global events. What is more important is love for your people and country. Only through a combination of these factors one can achieve best results, success. Preparation process for Baku 2015 was yet another confirmation of this.
As regards experience, I would like to applaud the role of Baku European Games Operation Committee (BEGOC) as foreign specialists brought experience and knowledge to Azerbaijan.
AZERTAC was the official media partner of Baku 15 so we maintaint regular contacts and held meetings with BEGOC Chief Operating Officer Simon Clegg and Director of Press Operations Jayne Pearce. Apart from professionalism, I felt love for Azerbaijan in their hearts. ‘To love Azerbaijan, you should see it’, as the saying rightly goes. In his interviews, Mr Clegg openly said that considers Azerbaijan his second home. Wherever we will go, part of Azerbaijan will remain in our hearts, he said.
Why made mostly by foreign specialists, the opening and closing ceremonies were so colorful and infused with national spirit? I would explain this by not only the team`s respect for Azerbaijan, but also by their perfect execution of instructions and recommendations of President Ilham Aliyev and first lady Mehriban Aliyeva.
Volunteers also played an invaluable role in the successful delivery of the First European Games. They were everywhere – in parks, metro and taxi stations across the city.
Although volunteering came to Azerbaijan from abroad, I don’t believe that volunteers in any other country would work with so much selflessness and dedication, and that volunteering would gather such a wide pace. Nearly 20,000 volunteers were working day and night gratis. Looking at them, one`s heart is filled with pride. These young people were skillfully and professionally working, and demonstrating respect and hospitality peculiar to Azerbaijani people to guests and athletes. This contributed to the improvement of the country`s image, evidenced by guests and athletes in their interviews. One can confidently say that Baku 2015 volunteers set certain standards of the European Games as well. This testifies to the fact that a highly-intellectual young generation is being brought up and that black gold is being converted into human capital in Azerbaijan.
17 days that amazed the world
No one even imagined that Baku 2015 Games would have been grandiose and sparked so much interest. Let`s look at some facts.
The Games were broadcast in 145 countries. The opening ceremony alone was broadcast in 140 countries, the Games boasted more than 1,100 hours of broadcasting worldwide. The total audience of the Games was nearly 823 million people, with about five and six million people watching the competitions on the official website of the Games.
The competitions were at the forefront of the global media attention. The following media outlets were highlighting the Games in their news and reports on a regular basis: Reuters, Associated Press, TASS, Agence France-Presse, Anadolu news agencies, Russian Rоssiya-2 and NTV, French BFM, German Sport-1, Spanish RTVE and Turkish television channels, German Die Welt and American The Washington Post newspapers, as well as a number of news portals.
The following is what foreign experts and media said about the first European Games.
Agence France-Presse said: “The First European Games held in Azerbaijan ended with a spectacular closing ceremony. Colorful choreographies, astonishing fireworks were the perfect ending for the Games.”
Italian newspaper Corriera dello Sport wrote: “Dynamically developing economy positively influences the progress of sports in Azerbaijan. Perfect sports infrastructure created in Baku demonstrates that the city is one of the leading candidates to host 2024 Summer Olympic Games.” This view was echoed by Italian news portal www.ilpost.it: “Azerbaijan is a rich country. The European Games were held in an excellent manner in magnificent sport facilities.”
Chiefs of foreign Olympic committees, famous athletes and sport specialists also praised Baku 2015 Games. Jose Manuel Constantino, president of the Portuguese Olympic Committee, described the Games as “a new and glorious” page in the history of sport.
Karl Stoss, President of the Austrian Olympic Committee, said “fantastic” infrastructure was created for the European Games in a short space of time.
Alejandro Blanco, President of the Spanish Olympic Committee, said: "The Games in Baku were perfectly organized, sports facilities were fantastic. So the country that will host the second European Games will face a considerable difficulty because it seems impossible to do something better than what we saw in Baku.”
Sergei Bubka, President of the Ukrainian Olympic Committee: “The Games were grandiose. Azerbaijan organized the first European Games more successfully than it was expected. For us the results of these Games are equal to the results of Summer Olympic Games.”
Michael Vesper, Director General of the German Olympic Sports Confederation, noted that even small details were perfectly arranged. “This includes professional organization, conditions created for athletes, and particularly, hospitality of Azerbaijan.”
Alexander Zhukov, President of the Russian Olympic Committee, compared sport facilities in Baku with those of the London Olympics. “Impressive sports facilities were built in Baku. Atmosphere there was astonishing. The stadiums were full, and the crowd was very enthusiastic.”
Cyclist Ellen van Dijk of the Netherlands, who won the women`s time trial gold at the European Games, said: “The event in Baku was brilliantly organized. The atmosphere was similar to that at the Olympic Games in London. I am very happy to be participating in this grandiose sporting event.”
So all this gives grounds to say Azerbaijan set standards for the European Games equal to Olympic standards. As our distinguished President said these are the highest standards. Will a country hosting the second European Games be able to comply with these standards,
Сможет ли, отвечать этим стандартам страна, которая проведет вторые Игры? На повестке дня уже стоит такой вопрос. Обращаясь к Президенту, первая леди Мехрибан Алиева, прекрасно характеризуя 17 дней, восхитившие мир, сказала: «Используя спортивную лексику, я могу сказать, что в эти 17 дней азербайджанский народ был единой командой, а Вы - славным капитаном этой команды. В этом случае, конечно, нельзя было не победить».
Baku 2015 and double standards
What a wide range of emotions we experienced during Baku 2015 Games. During these warm days of June each of us shared a feeling of pride, due to the immensity of the Games, the feeling of joy caused by the glorious victories of our athletes, and, at the same time, regret and bitterness of defeat.
However, there are some aspects to go through. We again became the target of double standards, bias, artificially unleashed propaganda. Before talking about it, we should pay attention to the political aspects of sport, in particular, of such a prestigious event as Baku 2015.
There is a stable opinion that sport is an indicator, a barometer of the overall development of any country. Poor, disadvantaged and economically backward countries can hardly achieve great sporting results.
Azerbaijan finished as runner-ups at the first European Games which brought together athletes from 50 countries. Later we will talk about the tremendous achievements of our athletes. The remarkable success of the Team Azerbaijan is comparable to economic power, dynamic development and rich potential of our state.
Who else topped 2015 European Games table along with Azerbaijan? Russia and most developed European countries - Britain, Germany, France and others. We won 56 medals, while Armenia - just one. Azerbaijan ranked 2nd while Armenia finished 36th. If we make a calculation, you can make sure that it is both an indicator of the balance of forces, which shown itself in the field of sports.
What other countries can achieve in 100 years, Azerbaijan has achieved in just 24 years. The competitions allowed us to demonstrate our economic strength and potential accumulated during this short period of time. Ill-wishers immediately began accusing us of showing off.
President Ilham Aliyev responded to these claims as follows: "This is natural. Of course, every country is seeking to show itself. Developed countries, which carried out similar events, also wanted to show themselves. There is nothing reprehensible in it. "
On the other hand, one should have something to show. In this sense, as I have already said, we have enough examples. Azerbaijan was able to hold out as a modern, fast developing country committed to democratic values. Our people proved themselves to people tied to their national roots and history.
Azerbaijan is a country that is usually subjected to double standards and experiences the bitter taste of biased, prejudiced attitude.
We can see this approach in a variety of issues - from the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to the Eurovision song contest, from democracy and human rights to the first European games. We have witnessed attempts to politicize Baku 2015.
In fact, it comes as no surprise. The fact that Azerbaijan is pursuing an independent policy and does not obey the will of the superpowers is probably one of the factors contributing to the double standards. The Armenian lobby which influences politicians, the media and NGOs, has played an integral role in this slanderous campaign, which targeted the European Olympic Committees as well.
As expected, the campaign has already calmed down. But the good and the evil must get a historical appraisal sooner or later.
Some German media also contributed to the anti-Azerbaijan campaign. This, of course, causes a feeling of regret. The response to this campaign did not take long, and came from Germany itself.
Famous newspaper Berliner Tageszeitung wrote: "Unfortunately, this is more smear campaign against Azerbaijan than criticism of the German media. There is even no reason to accuse Azerbaijan regarding the issue of human rights." Although the newspaper highlighted the economic development of Azerbaijan and Global Competitiveness report from the World Economic Forum which has adjudged Azerbaijan to be the 38th most globally competitive in the world. At the same time the newspaper writes that politicization of the European Games as a sporting event is groundless.
The article entitled 'European games: a sporting or a political competition?' published on Neurope.eu, condemns the biased position towards Azerbaijan on the eve of the First European Games and a smear campaign against our country.
There are many other examples, but to it is impossible to reflect them in a single article.
The world is built on injustice and double standards, and Azerbaijan is one of the countries that are most exposed to this injustice. Nevertheless, our country does not lose exposure and continues to pursue an independent policy. The reason is that Azerbaijan is not a country that counts on someone`s spots because it is not impossible to exert pressure on it.
The First European Games have become an indispensable instrument that demonstrated the correctness of our course. Splendor of the Games negated the plans of ill-wishers.
Triumph of Azerbaijani sport
Despite political-economic and social and psychological aspects, Baku 2015 has become a festival of sport, a stage of competition and wrestling. Finally, we have approached them from this standpoint.
We were confident that our athletes will shine, and as a members of the host team will compete strongly. But we did not expect to come second. We could not believe that the number of medals will exceed 50 with 21 gold, 15 silver and 20 bronze, we could not imagine that the results will be so high. But it happened, and went down in history as the true triumph of Azerbaijani sport, the victory of our state. The wrestlers, boxers, gymnasts, inscribed bright pages in the history of our sport and gave us a sense of infinite pride and joy.
Of course, sport is not only a source of joy and pride. There was also a sense of grief, excitement and regret over the missed opportunities to take gold. Sport is wonderful thing because it inspires different emotions, that is why it attracts millions of people.
I remember the semifinal women's volleyball match between Azerbaijan and Turkey. The outcome of the match was decided in the final set - tiebreak. The defeat of our team devastated us, but we must admit that it was a defeat equivalent of victory. Turkish women's national volleyball team is strongest in Europe. But our team fought to the end. Experts rightly called it an early final match.
Noble struggle, glorious victories of our athletes contributed to the number of spectators. In the following days of the competitions tickets were being sold out very quickly.
Baku 2015 is also best remembered for heart-stirring scenes. Glorious victory of a double Paralympic champion, two-time world champion, five-time European champion Ilham Zakiev at the first European Games and President Ilham Aliyev standing beside him on the podium are unforgettable. The President, the First Lady watched the competition in the stadium and personally handed over the medals to the winners. The foreign media assessed it as a manifestation of the state care about the sport and the athletes.
There is no doubt that the achievements of our athletes in recent years were taken into account when Azerbaijan won the right to host the first European games. It is enough to pay attention to the results of the Olympic Games - the world's most prestigious sporting event. At the last Olympics Azerbaijan took the 30th place among the world countries and the 15th place among the European countries. And a new generation of athletes is growing up. Team Azerbaijan ranked 10th last year at the Youth Olympic Games, a result that promises even more brilliant future for our sport. The Baku 2015 became a harbinger of future successes.
The first European games can be considered a serious test and experience for the Azerbaijani media. AZERTAC was into luck to become the official media partner of the Games. Our reporters were at the scene from the very start of the competitions with a torch relay race travelling around the country, worked directly from competitions to make news and spread them in the country and around the world. During 17 days of the Games AZERTAC produced more than 4,000 news in seven languages and hundreds of videos. We are proud of the fact that the CEO of the Operating Committee Azad Rahimov, Chief Operating Officer of the European Games Baku 2015 Simon Clegg, Press Operations Consultant of Baku 2015 European Games Jayne Pearce praised our work as a partner, highly appreciated professionalism. At the same time we are pleased that AZERTAC played a special role in European Games’ success.
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I would like to conclude with a brief quote.
President of the European Olympic Committees Patrick Hickey said: "These were the Games on which all future European Games will be built. The foundations of an event that will endure and inspire."
This statement made by one of the leaders of the European and world sport made us feel proud. Let’s just add that the first European Games will be a source for great pride for each Azerbaijani citizen.
The European Games torch lit in the ancient temple of Ateshgah, brightened the whole world. This light was lit in the Land of Fire - Azerbaijan.
European Games are behind us, the next goal is the Olympics!