The newly built Olympic Stadium of Baku, reportedly filled to the last seat, welcomed close to 6,000 athletes at the opening ceremony of the inaugural European Games on Friday.
The Baku 2015 First European Games Journey of the Flame, which had started in Ateshgah on April 26 this year, has travelled more than 5,000 km going around almost every corner of the host country Azerbaijan. On June 7, it arrived in Azerbaijan’s capital city and was run through the street of Baku and the venues where the games will be held, including the National Gymnastics Arena, the Baku Aquatics Centre and the Basketball Arena. It also toured the Old City which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, on June 9 and was carried through Baku’s parks and cultural spaces on June 10. Country’s President Ilham Aliyev and the First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva were among those who ran the torch in the seaside boulevard and downtown Baku.
As millions watched the broadly televised show, no one expected what program will be offered to the viewers. The American superstar Lady Gaga appeared at the peak of the event singing John Lennon’s “Imagine”. The opening ceremony featured traditional elements of Azerbaijani culture and history. One conspicuous element of the show was the fire. Rich with hydrocarbons and often referred to as ‘Land of Fire’, Azerbaijan did not disappoint its fans and fired up the show.
The Games, which will take place every four years, were brought into being at a vote by members of the European Olympic Committee (EOC) in 2012 and announced at a meeting of the body’s General Assembly in Rome that December. Thirty eight of the 49 EOC members supported the initiative – a mega sports event as a European equivalent of the multi-sport Asian Games and the Pan-American Games, both of which have been held since 1951.
The government of Azerbaijan spent enormous efforts to expedite the process of preparing the venues and infrastructure for the games. According to many experts, it was nearly impossible to build all necessary facilities for the games in the time given (two and a half years), but Azerbaijan was able to exceed the expectations.
Representatives of 50 European nations are set to compete in 20 sports (quatics, archery, athletics, badminton, judo, volleyball, boxing, canoe, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, table tennis, taekwondo, triathlon and wrestling) – four of them (F3x3 basketball, karate, beach soccer and sambo) being unconventional for Olympic Games – to get 253 medals. The Games which will are being held in 18 competition venues and 6 temporary arenas will continue for 17 days. Azerbaijan picked up the bill for almost all of the athletes who are staying in an upscale Athletes Village inaugurated a few days before the European Games were declared open.
Besides seeking to win medals for their country, many athletes are also participating in an effort to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Baku will host 253 medal events, with direct Olympic qualification at stake in disciplines including the triathlon.
Azerbaijan which has been the primary venue for many international events in the last 5 years, attempts to gain worldwide recognition from the international community. Largely unknown to many, Azerbaijan is a small secular state which restored its independence after the fall of Soviet Union in 1991. With its vast oil and gas reserves, Azerbaijan became one of the most rapidly growing economies in the world after exporting oil through Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhun pipeline to the West since 2006. Despite the fallen oil prices, it remains in the epicenter of energy politics as it prepares to ship its natural gas to southern Europe through the Southern Gas Corridor which will come online in 2019.
Azerbaijan became famous after the Azeri duo won the Eurovision contest in 2011, thus making Baku the host of Eurovision Contest in May 2012. It also held FIFA’s U-17 Women’s World Cup the same year with participation of American stars in the celebrations, including Jennifer Lopez and Rihanna. Baku will also be the venue of 2017 Formula-1 tournament and host several games of UEFA Euro 2020.
The games are one of a kind since they are considered continental Olympic Games being held in Europe for the first time. Held every four years – just like the summer Olympics – the torch will generate from historic Ateshgah temple in the outskirts of Baku and travel to the host country.