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History in the making The 1st European Games

Issue 1 June 2014 Especially produced for the ‘1 Year To Go’ celebrations of Baku 2015

History in the making The 1st European Games Edition #1, June 2014




12 June 2014 4

First Lady of the European Games


Hickey’s persistence pays off thanks to support from Baku


European Games sports will have a unique character


National Gymnastics Centre will be jewel in Baku crown


The Delivery Man


Baku living life in the fast lane of international sport


Azerbaijan, a nation where sport is a triumph of mind and body


Baku aiming for top marks


History in the making The 1st European Games Edition #1, June 2014



First Lady of the European Games Baku 2015 is benefitting from the contribution of Azerbaijan’s First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, who is head of the Organising Committee. Duncan Mackay finds out about her love of sport. Azerbaijan’s First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva is playing an active role in ensuring that Baku hosts a successful inaugural European Games next year. She is not just a symbolic head of the Organising Committee but actively involved in overseeing the preparations. This has included greeting and being involved in the work of the Coordination Commission set up by the European Olympic Committees when they travel to the Azerbaijani capital to check on how things are going. It is a sign of how well things have been progressing that the Commission have ended each of their three visits full of praise for the organisation. “Today Azerbaijan is known as a country of sport, and holding respected competitions has become a tradition here,” said the First Lady. “European and World Championships are held regularly in Azerbaijan. Both our guests and experts confirm that these events are held at the highest level.” Her enthusiasm for the first-ever European Games stems from the fact that she knows how important they are, not only to Azerbaijan but also to the future of sport in the continent. “The first European Games to be held in Azerbaijan will become the start of a new era in the sports movement,” said the First Lady. “And Azerbaijan will be the country to write this first page of history. No such event has been held so far. Notwithstanding that the Olympic Movement was born in Europe and then was again rehabilitated in Europe, continental Games had been held in other continents, and we have been favoured with holding the first such Games in Europe. “I would like to underline that the people of Azerbaijan highly appreciate these Games and realise the country’s responsibility for making them a success. At the same time, the Government of Azerbaijan has been


providing all types of support to these Games.

“We are doing everything possible to make sure that they are held successfully and that European athletes can perform at the highest level.” The First Lady heads a Committee of 30 people, which includes Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, Finance Minister Samir Sharifov and Interior Minister Ramil Usubov, along with the country’s Youth and Sports Minister Azad Rahimov, who is the chief executive of Baku 2015. “The Government of Azerbaijan attaches special emphasis to preparations for the first European Games,” said the First Lady. “The city residents and the entire sport community of the country are following the course of the preparatory work with interest. I believe this support will help us. We will do our best to use the Baku 2015 European Games to set a benchmark. “The preparations will end on time, which is evidenced by the speed of construction work at the Aquatics Centre, National Gymnastics Arena, Baku Shooting Centre, National Stadium and other facilities, and reconstruction of the existing sport infrastructure.” The First Lady’s love of sport is well-known. Besides her role with Baku, she is also a member of the ruling Executive Committee of the National Olympic Committee of Azerbaijan, which is headed by her husband, the country’s President Ilham Aliyev. She will, of course, be following all the sports closely during Baku 2015 but no-one will be surprised if she pays special attention to the gymnastics.

The First Lady was appointed President of the Azerbaijan Gymnastics Federation in 2002 and since then the country has established itself as one of the sport’s leading nations, hosting several major events, including the 2005 World Rhythmic Championships and the 2007 and 2009 European Rhythmic Championships. It will host the European Championships for a third time this month in the newly-built National Gymnastics Arena. Away from sport, the First Lady is well known for her charity work and philanthropy. She founded the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, establishing it in honour of the late Heydar Aliyev. Among its projects are helping fund the building of schools and hospitals and hosting cultural events. Other initiatives have included helping build the Baku Museum of Modern Art. Recently, the Heydar Aliyev Foundation unveiled ambitious plans for the funding of social projects aimed at disadvantaged children in Hungary, Romania and other Eastern European countries. In France, the First Lady was awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 2010 by then President Nicolas Sarkozy in recognition of her “outstanding service and loyalty”. She had been instrumental in arranging her Foundation’s support for renovation projects at the Louvre, Versailles Palace and Strasbourg Cathedral.


History in the making The 1st European Games Edition #1, June 2014

Hickey’s persistence pays off thanks to support from Baku A European Games has long been discussed but seemed only a pipe dream until Patrick Hickey presented his plan to Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev. David Owen hears about how the head of the European Olympic Committees made a dream come true. “Other organisers have made things too onerous and expensive for the hosts,” he tells insidethegames. “We saw this writing on the wall. This is why we decided to be flexible. “We think we are the right product at the right time because of our flexibility to tailor-make the Games to the city at minimal cost.”

The first Asian Games were hosted in 1951; the same for the Pan American Games. The All-Africa Games joined the party in 1965. You might say the inaugural European Games - now set for June 2015 in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku on the Caspian Sea - were a tad overdue. All the same, with many European economies struggling and even the most prominent mega-event owners under pressure to justify the value of what their particular properties bring to the world, there have been easier moments to launch a major new multi-sports venture. So it is reassuring to find that Patrick Hickey, the affable Irish judo black belt, who has been President of the European Olympic Committees since 2006, is intent on overseeing an event that is in tune with these somewhat straitened times.


Running through the line-up for what is set to be a 19-sport and approximately 6,000-athlete event, I am struck that, while there is an edge of originality, with 3x3 basketball, beach soccer, trampolining and acrobatics included, disciplines requiring expensive, highly-specialised venues seem often to have been omitted: there will be no canoe slalom at Baku 2015 and no track cycling. “We want cities to use the facilities they have,” Hickey explains. “We don’t want anything constructed.” The inaugural European Games have been coloured in various ways by the speed with which they have had to be organised; the decision to stage them was taken only in December 2012, leaving just two-and-a-half years to put everything in place, against, for example, seven years for an Olympic Games. Traditional athletics will feature, but only via the European Athletics Team Championships 3rd League, which includes

the host-nation, Azerbaijan; swimming, similarly, will be present, but it will be a 15-18 European Championship. “We have an excellent relationship with the European Athletics Federation, but unfortunately we came too late,” Hickey tells me. “They had committed the European [Team] Championships out to 2015.” Having the host nation’s athletics team competing, though, “means the stadium will be full and they will win medals”. He emphasises, moreover, that street athletics with “top-class athletes” will also be taking place and no doubt showcasing the city’s scenic side to good advantage. Furthermore, while the swimming competition is aged 15-18, any Olympic qualifying times swum in Baku will count for Rio 2016. “Our whole idea with the first Games is get it up and running,” Hickey, who is also an International Olympic Committee Executive Board member, concludes. In the 2019 Games, he says, “we will have the best track and field and the best swimming, subject to negotiation”. “All the Olympic sports which are not on this programme are queuing to meet us to talk about 2019.”


The tight time-frame for organising the inaugural 2015 Games meant there was no time for an orthodox bidding contest between prospective hosts either. Asked how Baku was chosen, Hickey explains that he has long known Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s President, who is also President of the country’s National Olympic Committee. In May 2012, when the country hosted the Eurovision Song Contest, Hickey was invited. “This was the greatest thing to hit Azerbaijan,” he says. “It exposed their country to the rest of Europe…I said, ‘We have a project, if you ever want a vehicle to show Azerbaijan to the rest of Europe…’” Negotiations followed, Azerbaijan was selected to host the inaugural Games at the 41st General Assembly of the European Olympic Committees in December 2012, and the rest, as they say, is history. “We are thrilled with the whole scene,” Hickey says. Under the deal that has been agreed, Baku has taken responsibility for marketing the Games, for the utilisation of the EOC’s brand. The EOC President explains that, since Azerbaijan lacked expertise in running mega-events, it has imported specialists who worked on the London 2012 Olympics. The deputies, however, are Azeris learning the ropes. Since Baku is known to be


keen on hosting the biggest mega-event of all, the Summer Olympics, having bid unsuccessfully for both the 2016 and 2020 Games, Hickey regards this as an important legacy. “At the end of the Europeans, they will have a team that can run an Olympic Games,” he says. Hickey credits two men - Zlatko Matesa, President of the Croatian National Olympic Committee, and Marius Vizer, President of the International Judo Federation and now also SportAccord - with being the “grandfathers” of the European Games. Each approached him independently a number of years ago, the Irishman remembers, to say that the Games would be a great idea.

continent. He also discovered instances where relations between IFs and European sports federations were “not so good”. Now though, such potential obstacles seem to have been consigned to history and European sport’s new baby looks poised to take an enduring place in the increasingly crowded international sporting landscape. The decision on a host for the second edition of the Games in 2019 will be made, Hickey says, in November, allowing a more reasonable four-and-a-half years’ preparation time. This time, some sort of selection process might be necessary, with rumours of interest from Rotterdam, this year’s Commonwealth Games host Glasgow and the Russian cities Kazan and Sochi.

“At the end of the Europeans, they will have a team that can run an Olympic Games”

Second time around, it is possible that the EOC will seek greater responsibility over marketing and broadcasting matters, although, Hickey indicates, this would be the subject of negotiation.

In spite of this and a subsequent feasibility study concluding that the Games were workable, supporters of the concept encountered much opposition on the road to Rome and that December 2012 green light.

In the meantime, Baku 2015, though arguably half-a-century or so late, is barely a year away.

Some international sports federations were worried, Hickey says, that a new event might eat into the sponsorship cake on the

Underlining the significance of the moment, Hickey says that IOC President Thomas Bach, the most powerful man in world sport, has promised him he will attend. “He might like to present a fencing medal,” he muses.


History in the making The 1st European Games Edition #1, June 2014

European Games sports will have a unique character Baku 2015 will feature 19 sports, nine of which will be Olympic qualifying events. But the programme will also be innovative and feature several new and exciting events that are sure to capture the imagination. Nick Butler gives us a sneak preview. Confirmation in April that athletics would be the 19th sport contested at Baku 2015 marked the probable end of a painstaking process of negotiation during which a recipe of disciplines has gradually taken shape. And, at the end of it all, the inaugural European Games in 12 months’ time is set to be a sporting feast of the highest order. But, despite it being a tempting comparison to make, the event will not be a carboncopy of the Olympic Games where the only difference is the absence of the rest


of world. It will be its own concept which will evolve its own unique traditions and ambiance.

variety, and swimming, diving, synchronised swimming and water polo will feature no athletes over the age of 18.

To make this point, it is necessary to spell out what will not be there.

It is hoped that some of these other sports will be added in the future, but the Games will also consist of non-Olympic sports and disciplines as well as numerous innovative and unique elements.

There will be no equestrian events in Baku, nor golf, handball, hockey, modern pentathlon, rugby, rowing, sailing or weightlifting. Although there will be road, mountain-biking and BMX cycling events, there will be no track competition, while football will consist only of the beach

Three examples are 3x3 basketball, beach soccer, and acrobatic and aerobic gymnastics.


The introduction of acrobatics, where gymnasts work together and perform routines consisting of acrobatic moves and dance and tumbling, and aerobics, where they perform continuously complex and high-intensity movement patterns to music, alongside artistic, rhythmic and trampoline events, is particularly innovative. It is hoped this will eventually pave the way for the two to be added to the Olympic programme and European Union of Gymnastics President Georges Guelzec claims the move is “rewriting the history” of the sport.

A final addition is the inclusion of visually impaired judo events. This marks the very first time a continental Games has “fully integrated” a Para-sport discipline into its sports programme, and is perhaps the most striking element of all. “It is a welcome addition and absolutely in line with our vision for the European Games to act as a catalyst for innovation in European sport,” said European Olympic Committees President Patrick Hickey when visually impaired judo was added.

So while the Games may not quite be a “European Olympics”, it will be a compelling festival of sport nonetheless that should not be missed by athletes or aficionados of top-level sport. For most athletes a qualification process, formulated from ranking lists and specific continental events, will begin soon and continue for the next few months. And, across this impressive spectrum of new and old disciplines, testing every sinew of sporting pedigree, many fierce battles on the road to Baku 2015 certainly lie ahead.

Speaking of Olympic inclusion, there has been a growing chorus for some time over the inclusion of 3x3 basketball, a faster and more dynamic version of one of the most popular sports in the world. The staging of the event in Baku will be a great test for the sport. Beach soccer is an even younger discipline which will showcase the scenery of the Azerbaijani capital next year, where it is hoped some of the biggest names on the continent will compete. In other sports it is guaranteed the very best athletes in Europe will be present because Baku 2015 offers the first opportunity to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. In shooting, table tennis and triathlon, a place will be available for the winner of each individual event. In beach volleyball, cycling and taekwondo, there will be the opportunity to earn ranking points on the road to Rio. In swimming and athletics, there will be specific qualification standards up for grabs.

Karate is the only truly non-Olympic sport taking place and a two-day format will consist of 12 events spanning “kata” demonstration events and “kumite” sparring matches. Considering Azerbaijan’s proud heritage in combat sports, the fact there will be five on show in Baku is not too much of a surprise, with boxing, judo, taekwondo and wrestling also featuring.


Photo: Gregory Boissy/AFP/Getty Images

And then there are the other non-Olympic events. This includes a solo competition in synchronised swimming, 5 and 7.5 metre diving events, 5,000m races in sprint canoeing, and mixed team competitions in shooting and archery.


History in the making The 1st European Games Edition #1, June 2014

National Gymnastics Arena will be

jewel Baku crown in


Baku boasts one of the few bespoke gymnastics arenas in the world thanks to the support of Azerbaijan’s First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, as Paul Osborne reports. Officially opened in April by President Ilham Aliyev and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, who is head of the Oganising Committee for Baku 2015 and, coincidentally, the Azerbaijan Gymnastics Federation, the National Gymnastics Arena will be a centrepiece venue for the European Games. The iconic Arena will play host to all gymnastic disciplines at the Games, including artistic, rhythmic, acrobatic and aerobic, with the trampoline event also set to be held there.


Photo: Broadway Malyan

a deep understanding of the intangibles, such as “atmosphere”, that make venues successful. The resultant design symbolises Azerbaijan’s strong gymnastics heritage and takes inspiration from the ribbon of the rhythmic gymnast, featuring three ribbon louvres to control daylight and solar gain and create views. At night, dynamic lighting will make the Arena appear as three ribbons in Azerbaijan’s national colours fluttering over a stone plinth, with the lighting scheme also enabling the projection of lighting displays and dynamic imagery. Inside, the Arena is designed to host all gymnastics disciplines, while also having the flexibility to host other sporting and cultural events through its retractable and movable seating tiers. These tiers allow the Arena to vary its capacity from 5,000 to 9,600 seats, depending on the scale and nature of the event it is hosting. It also features a training hall for the national Azerbaijan gymnastics team, which can be integrated into the main Arena space and includes accommodation facilities, as well as physiotherapy and medical suites.

Located between the rail-line and main road from the airport, the Arena will be easily accessible for all athletes, spectators and media personnel. It will sit within the Village Cluster, positioned just yards away from both the Athletes’ Village and main National Stadium. The Arena was designed by global architecture, urbanism and design practice Broadway Malyan, following a competition-winning design entry in 2011. The design project included development from start to finish, encompassing architectural, interior and landscape design, as well as graphics, way-finding, signage and ticketing. Broadway Malyan’s approach was to prioritise the spectators’ experience and gymnasts’ needs and address the unique challenges of venue design by combining an intelligence-led design approach with


The Arena is set within the 24,000 square metres of surrounding landscape designed to complement the building and includes an underground car park capable of parking at least 300 vehicles.

disciplines at once during the Games, while in 2019 the Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships is also planned to be organised at the Arena. These will not be the first major rhythmic gymnastics competitions to be held in Azerbaijan, with the country boasting a highly successful delivery portfolio, including the Rhythmic Gymnastics World Cup Competitions in 2003 and 2004, the World Championship in 2005 and the European Championships in 2007 and 2009. Up-to-date gymnastics equipment is installed in the hall according to the recommendations of the European Union of Gymnastics and Azerbaijan Gymnastics Federation. National teams in rhythmic and men’s artistic gymnastics, as well as trampoline and acrobatic gymnastics and tumbling, currently train in the Arena. Courses for coaches are also organised here by the Academy of the International Federation of Gymnastics. For the last two months, gymnasts from Turkey, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Mexico and Hungary have taken part in the training camp held in the hall. It is expected that athletes from Canada, the Czech Republic, Greece and Finland will join the training camp to be held in the near future.

Within this area, visitors will also find a hotel as well as a press centre, first aid station, dance hall and gym, doping control rooms, offices, shops and cafes. Costing in the region of $200 million, the Arena is one of only a handful of bespoke gymnastics venues in the world. The Arena is due to stage its first major event when it hosts the 30th European Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships on June 13 until 15. More than 30 countries are expected to take part in the Championships, where competitors will be housed in the new Athletes’ Village built for the 2015 European Games. In 2015, it will host all five gymnastics


History in the making The 1st European Games Edition #1, June 2014

delivery man


Azerbaijan’s Minister of Youth and Sport Azad Rahimov is also the chief executive of Baku 2015 and his attitude encapsulates the country’s approach to making sure that the first ever European Games are a big success. Duncan Mackay spoke to him.

Azad Rahimov facts Minister of Youth and Sport of Azerbaijan and chief executive of Baku 2015 European Games Born: October 8 1964 Degree: Azerbaijan University of Languages, English Appointed as Minister of Youth and Sport of Azerbaijan: 2005

Azad Rahimov, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Youth and Sports, is the man entrusted with delivering history. He is responsible for turning the vision of the European Games - an event talked about for more than 20 years - into reality in 2015. With the European Olympic Committees awarding the Games to Baku at its General Assembly in Rome only in December 2012, it means that the build-up is more of a sprint than a marathon. Most cities awarded events of this scale are given at least seven years to prepare, but


Baku have been given less than three and the clock is ticking, it seems. But Rahimov encapsulates the “can do” spirit pervading the organisers in Azerbaijan, the largest country in the Caucasus region located at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe, which was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1920 who needed its oil, now the source of great wealth for this relatively newly independent country. “The decision of the European Olympic Committees created excitement among the Azerbaijani people,” Rahimov, who is also

serving as the Organising Committee’s chief executive, said. “We are honoured to hold the first ever European Games in Baku. As you know, the first step in any job always demands more responsibility. “In this way, we are doing our best to organise the Games at the highest level, so we will be able to justify the confidence of the people who voted for the candidacy of Baku, and amaze the sporting community with our organisational experience. “We want to provide the best possible venues and theatres of sport for the finest


athletes of Europe at the Baku Games. The magic and inspiration of athletes competing in spectacular venues unites people and inspires the youth, as we saw at Sochi [2014].” Hosting the Games will be the culmination of a period of spectacular growth for Azerbaijani sport under Rahimov, a graduate of the Azerbaijan University of Languages where he earned a degree in English. He assumed his current role in 2005 when the country’s President Ilham Aliyev decided to set up a separate Ministry for Youth and Sport. Since Rahimov took over, Azerbaijan has enjoyed record-breaking Olympic performances, claiming seven medals, including a gold at Beijing 2008 and improving on that four years later at London 2012 with 10 medals, two of them gold. “Azerbaijan athletes started out only winning one medal in the [1996] Atlanta Games, then three in Sydney [2000], seven in Beijing and then 10 in London,” Rahimov said. “For a small country like Azerbaijan to have won 10 medals in the Olympic Games, ranking 15th in Europe and second in the Islamic world, really shows a logical development of sports in our country. “We’re moving in the right direction. In the past, we were more focussed on traditional sports like wrestling, weightlifting, boxing, judo and taekwondo. We have seen a development in gymnastics. We made big achievements in women’s volleyball after our women’s volleyball club won first place in the World Club Championships. We’ve also done well in rowing and canoeing.”

Chess Cup in Baku. In addition to hosting the inaugural European Games in 2015, Baku also has the fourth Islamic Solidarity Games in 2017.” But, if events like the European Games act as the shop window for Azerbaijan, then Rahimov also makes sure that the grassroots are well catered for. “Over the past 10 years, 35 Olympic sport complexes have been built,” he said. “They provide a great opportunity for the development of sports in each region. As a result, our youth is growing up healthy and strong and a new generation of athletes is emerging. “At the same time, the opening of such complexes in the regions means athletes have the ability to compete at various levels as the country is able to hold more and more events. “The youth policy is the main direction of the Ministry of Sport. Sixty-six per cent of the population is under 35 years old, and 32 per cent is between 14 and 29. These people are looking for jobs, looking for partners, looking for a roof over their heads and looking for entertainment. “We have 220 non-Governmental youth organisations and we are working hard with them. We sponsor and finance social projects and we’re working with students educated abroad.”

But, in the short-term, the country’s focus is fixed firmly on the European Games. “The Baku Games will feature innovative sporting formats, fields of play and settings that that will help keep Europe at the forefront of sporting excellence and innovation, and unite people across Europe in a passionate celebration of the athletes of sport,” Rahimov promised. Some have dismissed the European Games as a “vanity” project but Rahimov has insisted that everything being built will have a use afterwards and there will be no white elephants. “A very important part for us and for the Olympic family is building a legacy,” he said. “We know that in some other countries Olympic venues stand empty after the Games, and these structures become a problem. We don’t want that, and for that reason we are focussing on our existing sport infrastructure as well as using some multifunctional venues and temporary facilities. “The three big sport complexes that are currently under construction were started before the decision was made to host the European Games. We have a new football stadium, our gymnastics complex is now ready and we will be using a multifunction venue, similar to Crystal Hall, where we hosted the Eurovision Song Contest, for sports like table tennis and badminton. All of the venues are within 10km of each other, so we don’t need to build new roads.”

This has led to a new found respect for the country, something that extends to both on and off the field of play following the country’s successful hosting of the 2012 FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup, an event that featured 16 countries playing in six venues across the country. “Every year the number of international competitions organised in our country increases,” said Rahimov. “In the coming years, the number and quality of the competitions will improve. “We are now looking forward to hosting the 2015 Chess Olympiad and the 2015 World



History in the making The 1st European Games Edition #1, June 2014

Baku of international sport living life in the fast lane

In just over two decades of independence Azerbaijan has come a long way on the international stage. Gary Anderson reports. When the inaugural 2015 European Games get underway in Baku on June 12 next year, it will not only mark the beginning of a new era for sport in the continent but will also signpost another significant step on Azerbaijan’s journey onto the international stage 24 years after the country attained its independence. During the Opening Ceremony in Baku’s National Stadium, athletes from the National Olympic Committees of Europe


along with team officials and thousands of fans, will come together to celebrate the launch of the first Pan-European multi-sport event in history. For the people of Azerbaijan it will undoubtedly be a moment of national pride and represent the continuation of the country’s desire to become part of something much bigger - the European Family. Azerbaijan fought long for independence from the Soviet Union and the right to

self-governance and, since that right became a reality in 1991, the last two decades has seen a proud nation emerge and look outwards and embrace its European neighbours and the wider international community. There is no doubt that an abundance of natural oil and gas resources, including huge reserves of natural resources, have enabled Azerbaijan to find its feet on the world stage more earnestly than some of the other Soviet Bloc countries. But this


Photo: Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images

The sporting calendar in Azerbaijan has increasingly been marked by a wide ranging portfolio of international tournaments over the past two decades, with perhaps the standout event so far being the historic hosting of the FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup in 2012. Sixteen of the world’s top young teams descended on host cities Baku and Lankaran for the three-week festival of football which saw 32 matches take place across six venues - Dalga Arena, Tofiq Bahramov Stadium, Bayil Stadium, 8km Stadium, Shafa Stadium in Baku and the Lankaran City Stadium. For the first time in the competition’s history, a team from Asia and Europe met in the final as North Korea took on eventual winners France to beautifully echo the sentiments of FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who declared before the tournament that: “The hosting of a FIFA Women’s World Cup in Azerbaijan is a symbol for the region and shows the world that football is open to all cultures and civilisations.”

has been supplemented by a desire to use these advantages to open up its doors, take on new ideas and be ambitious. This desire to renew its credentials and to establish its place as a vibrant emerging nation has seen Azerbaijan use sport, perhaps more than any other sphere of society, as the tool to plant its flag firmly on the international map. The first delegation of athletes to compete under the Azerbaijani flag came at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games, which saw wrestler Namig Abdullayev claim a historic silver medal. Nine Olympic Games, 25 medals including six gold - and around 200 athletes later, Azerbaijan is establishing itself as a country that can compete on the highest sporting stage of them all. These performances in the sporting arena have been matched by Azerbaijan’s growing reputation as a viable and reliable host of major international events, of which the 2015 European Games will be the highlight so far.


“This is a place where East meets West.” Indeed, straddling Eastern Europe and Western Asia, Azerbaijan is perfectly located to provide a sporting and cultural bridge between the two continents and between ancient civilisations and newworld thinking. While the FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup may have been Azerbaijan’s sporting highlight to date, 2012 also saw arguably the most glittering manifestation yet of the country’s acceptance into the European Family as the newly-built Baku Crystal Hall hosted the 57th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest following pop duo Ell & Nikki’s win in Dussledorf, Germany the year before with the song Running Scared. The musical and cultural extravaganza, which saw Loreen of Sweden win with

her song Euphoria, was hailed as a huge success and was yet another important milestone in Azerbaijan’s exciting journey. Often referred to as the Land of Fire, originating from the sight of gas igniting and escaping from the ground, there is no doubt that the ember that burns the brightest in Azerbaijan’s diverse physical and cultural landscape is Baku itself. Populated by more than 2.5 million of Azerbaijan’s 9.4 million inhabitants, the city is a perfect microcosm of the country as a whole. Dubbed the City of Contrasts, the heart of Baku’s Old City, a UNESCO heritage site comprising of ancient treasures such as Shirvanshah’s Palace and Maiden Tower, sit alongside award-winning designed modern skyscrapers, such as the capital’s iconic three Flame Towers which were completed in 2012. Baku is without doubt the sporting hub of Azerbaijan and has played host to a number of global sporting events, along with the FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup, including the Rhythmic Gymnastics European Championships in 2009, the 2010 European Wrestling Championships and the 2011 World Amateur Boxing Championships. In addition, the city has staged the European Taekwondo Team Championships and the Junior and Cadet Fencing Championships in 2010 and, following the success of the World Judo Masters in 2011, Baku is now a stop on the International Judo Federation’s Grand Slam World tour, with the Sarhadchi Olympic Sport Centre staging the event for the second consecutive year in May. Following the inaugural European Games in 2015, Baku will also continue its venture into the world of motorsport after the historic deal signed between Baku Grand Prix Limited, which has been formed by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Youth and Sport to promote the event, and Formula One World Championship Limited. The deal will see Baku host its first Formula One race in 2016 and is a further demonstration of the city’s and Azerbaijan’s desire to live life in the fast lane of international sport.


History in the making The 1st European Games

Photo: Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images

Edition #1, June 2014


a nation where sport is a

triumph of mind and body Since becoming independent in 1991 Azerbaijan has enjoyed success in sports as diverse as chess and judo. Nick Butler reports.


With a year to go until the eyes of Europe turn to Baku, the first thing many may associate with sport in Azerbaijan is the nation’s sponsorship of Spanish giants AtlÊtico Madrid at the Champions League final in Lisbon last month. But Azerbaijan actually has a proud sporting history which has translated

itself into impressive global success over the last 23 years since the country got its independence. Competitive sport in the region was first recorded in The Book of Dede Korkut, a collection of folklore from the 11th to the 16th century in which both male and female competitors are mentioned.


On an international level, the first success for Azerbaijan also came in sports seemingly without much in common, namely sumo-wrestling and chess. Following in the footsteps of prominent chess players, Ilaha Gadimova finished runner-up at the 1992 European Junior Championships at the age of just 13. The following year she became a European student champion and in 1996 took third place at an International Students Competition despite being only 16. Sumo wrestler Zulfiyya Hasanova, meanwhile, won World Championship titles in 1995 and 1996, as well as a European victory in 1995. The fact that these two pioneers were female continued a path of sporting gender equality chronicled in The Book of Dede Korkut and evident to a large extent ever since. After participating as part of the Unified Team at Barcelona 1992, Azerbaijan made their Olympic debut four years later in Atlanta and their 23-strong team included three women. It did not take long for the first medal winner in Atlanta as Namik Abdullayev grappled to a silver in freestyle wrestling against Bulgaria’s seven-time world champion Valentin Jordanov in a pulsating flyweight final in which many thought, and still think, Abdullayev should have been awarded gold. Four years later in Sydney he did exactly that when he moved three points clear of American opponent Sammie Henson within 45 seconds of their final clash. With four World Championship medals and three European titles also under his belt, Abdullayev can justifiably claim to be the first Azerbaijani sporting superstar. Three Summer Olympics later and a total of 26 medals have been won, consisting of six gold, five silver and 15 bronze across the five sports of wrestling, shooting, judo, boxing and weightlifting. The national strength in combat sports


History of sport in Azerbaijan facts Participated independently in Olympic Games since: Atlanta 1996 Total medals won at Summer Olympics: 26 First Olympic medal: Namik Abdullayev, silver in freestyle wrestling Most medals won in: Wrestling

is especially impressive given the wide number of countries which are competitive, particularly since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Another leading star is skeet shooter Zemfira Meftakhetdinova. After producing a perfect final round of 25-out-of-25 to take an Olympic record-breaking victory at Sydney 2000, Meftakhetdinova, also a police officer and a school teacher, took bronze four years later in Athens and was still competing internationally as recently as 2012. Greco-Roman wrestler Farid Mansurov won a third Azerbaijani gold at Athens 2004, before London 2012 produced two freestyle wrestling champions, Toghrul Asgarov and Sharif Sharifov. But leading the way in terms of fame is the only winner from Beijing 2008, under 73kg judoka Elnur Mammadli. Mammadli required a fleeting 13 seconds to dispatch South Korean world champion Wang Gi-chun in the final, and at the Closing Ceremony was one of three figures depicted to illustrate athletic success at the Games. To show the company he was in, the other two were swimmer Michael Phelps, who won a record eight gold medals, and triple gold medal-winning sprinting superstar Usain Bolt. The trick now is to extend this success to other sports, and at London 2012 the country used its location on the banks of the Caspian Sea to its advantage in gaining top five finishes in canoeing and rowing, as well as in rhythmic gymnastics. Another athlete to keep an eye on is distance runner Haile Ibrahimov, runner-up behind future double Olympic champion Mo Farah over 5,000m at the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona and a gold medallist at the Summer Universiade in Kazan last year.

Azerbaijan has also competed at five Winter Olympic Games in Alpine skiing and figure skating events. They have never won a medal but did create a stir at Vancouver 2010 when the two-strong team of Jedrij Notz and Gaia Bassani Antivari paraded at the Opening Ceremony sporting multicoloured paisley trousers. It was accepted afterwards that they may not have won on snow and ice, but certainly emerged triumphant in “the battle of the pants”... The rise of the men’s national football team can be taken as a final example of general improvement. Although a world ranking of 85 may not seem particularly impressive, they have risen from 170th in recent years under the charge of the former Germany, Scotland and Nigeria manager Berti Vogts and last October held Russia to a 1-1 draw in Baku. So while sponsoring Atlético Madrid is certainly a sporting coup for Azerbaijan, they have produced a multitude of homegrown stars and, from chess to football via Greco-Roman wrestling, there will be many more to come.

Photo: Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images

Traditional forms of polo, wrestling and backgammon are still practised today in rural areas, known as “chovgan”, “gyulash” and “nard” respectively.


History in the making The 1st European Games Edition #1, June 2014

Baku 2015 aiming for top marks

A generation of youngsters are set to benefit from the Baku 2015 Games Academy by earning a qualification that will help them organise other major events. Duncan Mackay reports.

A long-lasting legacy of the inaugural European Games is set to be the Baku 2015 Games Academy, designed to help create something tangible for people involved in this exciting new event.

The Academy will develop the skills and Games knowledge of local team members through the Flexible Learning Pathway, as well as developing participating university graduates from Azerbaijan and all over Europe in the Graduate Excellence Programme. The programmes will allow the Games Academy to support the creation of a lasting capability legacy in Azerbaijan, it is hoped. This unique initiative is being led by Baku 2015 and the Azerbaijan Youth Foundation, whose Patron is the country’s President Ilham Aliyev, and has been endorsed by the European Olympic Committees. “This is an opportunity for young people from Azerbaijan and all over Europe to help contribute to the success of the first ever European Games,” said Azad Rahimov, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Youth and Sport and Baku 2015 chief executive. “We look forward to welcoming these ambitious young graduates and helping them to hone their skills as they begin their careers in the world of major sports event management.” Talented and motivated people who graduated between 2012 and 2014 were invited to apply to the programme, which will see 199 candidates have the opportunity to develop their talents to make the most of the European Games experience. The intake will be made up of 150 students from universities in Azerbaijan and 49 from the countries of each participating National Olympic Committee. Applications closed last month and the first group of students is expected to be announced soon. “The Baku 2015 Games Academy is yet another innovative idea from Baku 2015 that will be hugely beneficial for young people in Azerbaijan and elsewhere across Europe,” said Patrick Hickey, President of the European Olympic Committees. “This academy is an example of how the EOC and Baku 2015 share the same vision for the inaugural


European Games to leave a footprint of sports management best practice. “The delivery partners that Baku 2015 are using show how well supported this idea is by the Azerbaijani people. I’m particularly pleased that each of Europe’s National Olympic Committees will be invited to be a part of the Academy and I’m sure the 199 young people on the Graduate Excellence Programme will provide useful insights for Games organisers and the EOC.” The programme will include three weeks of intensive training, with participants then given real responsibility for planning and delivering Baku 2015 for up to one year, with coaching and mentoring from international experts, as well as gaining hands-on experience with roles at test events and during Games time, officials promise.

The entire local Baku 2015 team will also benefit through the Flexible Learning Pathway initiative, which will provide a structured roadmap of regular learning through core skills courses, training on event management and multi-sport events, mentoring and coaching from experienced team members and preparation for Games-time roles, it is hoped. “The Azerbaijan Youth Foundation, under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, is proud to be supporting the development of the Baku 2015 Games Academy as we believe it is a ground-breaking initiative that will ensure a genuine and lasting legacy that will inspire and excite our country’s youth,” a spokesperson for the Azerbaijan Youth Foundation said. Gavin McAlpine, who worked for both Vancouver 2010 and London 2012 and is now director of operational capability and readiness at Baku 2015, will oversee the Academy. “We believe that the Games Academy is unique in the major events industry,” he said. “For the first time on a large scale, people will be able to benefit from the type of career-defining learning experience which is normally only available in corporate organisations.”


Published: June 2014 by Dunsar Media Company Limited Editor: Duncan Mackay Managing Director: Sarah Bowron Commercial Director: Dominique Gill

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Baku 2015 Magazine - Issue 1