The air is full of European Games buzz here in Baku! The time has almost come for Azerbaijan to welcome a host of International athletes and visitors and to make a big impact on the global sporting scene. Taking place from 12th June to 28th June 2015, these will be the first European Games ever and Baku is on tenterhooks. Will everything be ready on time? How will the normally chaotic infrastructure respond? Expats and locals have watched how over the last two years whole town quarters, many of them not much more than slum dwellings, have been torn down and replaced by smarter looking modern buildings, more expensive, of course, and leading to displacement of local residents. We’ve witnessed how locals have vastly increased their English language skills and how the service ethos in restaurants and hotels has slowly improved. We’ve seen the opening of a glossy second airport terminal and the emergence of even more high status designer clothes shops, eateries and food emporia, all with that unmistakable air of Western sophistication, often at the cost of what Americans call Mom and Pop corner shops. While we’ve welcomed the familiarity, we also grieved for the loss of neighbourhood authenticity. Make no mistake, where the visitor’s eye doesn’t look, there are still shanty dwellings without running water or heating. Much has improved but not everything is as it appears to the fleeting glance.
With just over two years of preparation time as opposed to, say, the nine years London had to gear up to the Olympics, Azerbaijan has pulled out all the stops. At this speed of development, there are obviously bound to be some areas which have been so rapidly turned inside out, that perhaps it is not surprising that the foundations are not always as solid as they seem, but nonetheless, an impressive effort to meet international standards and requirements, at least outwardly, has been made, even though general and specific disabled provisions, for instance, are still sorely absent. Hopefully, all the new and revamped housing and facilities will be of benefit to the Baku population in the long-term. Time will tell.
Baku made its debut on the world stage in 2012 by hosting the European song contest but the beauty of oil rich and essentially super wealthy Azerbaijan with its nine out of eleven existing climate zones and varying stunning landscapes, from desert to snow capped mountains, from verdant valleys to the Caspian seashore, has remained largely unknown. All this is about to change.
Multi disciplinary continental games have existed for quite some time around the world, there are the Asian Games, the Pan American Games, the All Africa Games and others. Up until now, each sporting discipline has had its own European Championships but from the inaugural event this June in Baku onwards, European athletes will have their own games to compete in and test their mettle.
Twenty different sporting disciplines spread over 253 events will be represented in Baku, including archery, athletics, boxing, cycling, judo, shooting, swimming, table tennis, taekwondo, triathlon, volleyball and wrestling, to name just a few. In some cases it will be the first opportunity for European junior athletes to gain International experience and qualification in preparation for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Six thousand athletes from 50 countries and, according to Azerbaijan’s Culture and Tourism minister, 15 -20.000 foreign visitors are expected to attend the Games, so there is no doubt, that the association with well-known sporting names and the International media coverage will much increase Azerbaijan’s profile and put Baku on the map. This, after all, is the reason for the massive expenditure, upheaval and development at a time when the Azerbaijani Manat has suffered considerable devaluation and the oil price has sunk to an all time low, resulting in cost cutting in many areas.
The city has prepared for the forthcoming Games by easing the entry visa requirements, putting in place more efficient transport services, building new International standard hotels, adjusting working hours and, most importantly, putting in place imposing stadia and event venues with multilingual local and expat volunteers or employees to staff them, in the expectation that it will all pay off and leave a worthwhile legacy to the country. Rehearsal events have successfully taken place over the last few months, such as boxing at the Crystal Hall and wrestling at the Heydar Aliyev Arena, with full award ceremonies, flag hoisting and anthem singing. Baku is ready, bring it all on!
The European Games are just the starting shot. 2016 will see the Formula One Grand Prix circus roll into town, following the success of FIAGT motor racing series. Then there’s the Cycling Tour d’Azerbaidjan, the Arena Polo World Cup, the Football European Championships in 2020 and many other high-calibre International sporting events which will put Azerbaijan and Baku firmly centre stage. The Qarabag football team under the management of Gurban Gurbanov is going from strength to strength and is fast rising within European Club Football, another feather in Azerbaijan’s cap.
So what will the legacy of all these events be? As mentioned above, an improved infrastructure to the city and its services is already apparent, as is an ever decreasing language barrier. A future of more highly targeted coaching and grassroots sports development in this country should further make a major positive difference to its youth and general population. There will doubtlessly also be expansion in the political and economic arenas. All these transformations will be gradual and will not happen overnight. Perhaps most significantly, however, will be an opening up to the world at large with Azerbaijan, for so long isolated behind the iron curtain, ridding itself of its inherent xenophobia and other nations finally becoming aware of all that this fascinating, beautiful and remarkable Land of Fire and its people have to offer.
Vive le sport! Vive l’Azerbaidjan!